Back Pain and Obesity Claimant

My client was a 42-year-old man with a high-school education and past work as a furniture dyer, order filler, and pallet sorter.  He had degenerative spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal through which the spinal cord passes) and morbid obesity, weighing in at 480 pounds and 71 inches tall.  He had to stop working in September 2007 because of his back pain.  He had lumbar spine magnetic resonance images documenting his back impairment, and he was given epidural steroid injections, which did not eliminate the restrictions on his activities.  He was able to lose some weight after following up at a weight loss clinic, but could not get funding to perform a gastric bypass surgery to help him lose weight.  He had received a favorable decision from a North Carolina State Hearing Officer on his Medicaid claim, finding that he could not perform the full range of sedentary work.

At the hearing, I did not believe that my client made the most credible witness regarding his efforts to lose weight.  Still, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) asked hypothetical questions of the vocational expert, one of which resulted in a response that there were jobs that someone like my client could perform, and a second hypothetical question asking if there would be any jobs for a person who missed two days per month, which precluded all competitive work.  At the end of the hearing, I was unsure how the ALJ was going to rule.

Fortunately, about six weeks after the hearing I received a fully-favorable decision.  The ALJ found that my client could perform “light” work with a sit and stand option every 30 minutes, but that as a result of pain and other factors, he would be unable to maintain a 40-hour work week on a sustained basis.  The ALJ found that my client’s statements about the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of symptoms was generally credible.

What you can learn from this case:  this case illustrates how difficult it is to tell how an ALJ will rule after the hearing.  Don’t be alarmed if your attorney says he can’t be sure how the ALJ will decide your case.  Often, there is simply no way to tell and you will just have to wait to receive a decision before knowing what the ALJ thinks about your claim.  I like to tell my clients after hearings that they should hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.  Prayer is also a good idea.

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