Can I Get Social Security Disability Benefits for Multiple Sclerosis?
What Is RFC?
If your multiple sclerosis is not severe enough to meet or equal a listing at Step 3 of the Sequential Evaluation Process, the Social Security Administration will need to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC) to decide whether you are disabled at Step 4 and Step 5 of the Sequential Evaluation Process. RFC is a claimant’s ability to perform work-related activities. In other words, it is what you can still do despite your limitations. An RFC for physical impairments is expressed in terms of whether the Social Security Administration believes you can do heavy, medium, light, or sedentary work in spite of your impairments. The lower your RFC, the less the Social Security Administration believes you can do.
Limitations on Lifting and Walking
When assessing your RFC, the Social Security Administration should consider the weight that you are able to lift and carry. To be able to do medium work, which requires you to lift and carry up to 50 lbs and stand and walk 6 to 8 hours daily, you should have no more than very modest deficits in strength, coordination, and balance.
If you have some difficulty in walking on your heels and toes, or squatting and arising, during medical examination, you might still be able to do light work (lifting no more than 20 lbs and still standing and walking 6 to 8 hours daily). But you probably would not realistically be able to do even light work if you cannot walk on your heels and toes while carrying no weight during a physical.
In evaluating upper extremity function, the Social Security Administration should consider whether you have insufficient strength to operate arm or leg controls more than occasionally in the affected limbs.
Of course, all factors have to be considered: whether your muscles appear weak and limp on exam or spastic (in spasm), whether you are overweight etc. Thus, your RFC could be reduced to sedentary work requiring no more than 2 hours standing and walking daily. If you also have significant upper extremity dysfunction, you would be disabled under a listing.
If both your legs are impaired, and your upper extremities are functionally intact, the impairment will meet Listing 11.09A and you will be disabled if your gait and station are impaired to a significant degree—that is, if you cannot stand and walk 6 to 8 hours daily, and you have a problem standing because of balance sufficient for sedentary work. If gait and station are fully functional for sedentary work, except for enough stamina or strength to stand and walk for more prolonged periods, and your upper extremity function is fully intact, then you are capable of a sedentary work RFC.
Limitations on Activities of Daily Living
You—or family members—should be asked in detail about your ability to carry out activities of daily living (ADL). Of particular interest is your ability to walk up and down steps, the speed at which you walk, and how easily you tire. If you cannot walk a block, you certainly cannot stand and walk 6 to 8 hours daily. You should also be asked what tasks you could do before your stroke that you cannot do now. Can you dress without assistance? Manipulative functions are important. Can you turn a doorknob? Can you pick up coins and button shirts?
High-quality description of your ADLs is very important.
Other Issues Relevant to the Listings and RFC
Certain important issues should also be kept in mind regarding meeting or equaling the listing, or determination of RFC:
- The Social Security adjudicator is likely to under-rate allegations of fatigue.
- The Social Security adjudicator may fail to develop your claim for a mental impairment, unless you specifically mention in your application for social security disability benefits that you are depressed. Because of the frequent presence of depression in MS, failure to ask the claimant specifically about depression or other mental problems is a mistake.
- The Social Security adjudicator may not be aware that exertion can increase the severity of MS signs and symptoms, quite apart from the issue of fatigue.
- The Social Security adjudicator is very likely to be unaware that hot environments, or getting hot from overexertion, can precipitate a worsening of signs and symptoms in MS. Consequently, appropriate environmental restrictions, such as avoiding work at temperatures over 75° F, are not given.
- The Social Security adjudicator may not appreciate the overall severity of a combination of impairments that should result in a finding of equivalent severity to the listing.
- The Social Security adjudicator is likely to not adequately appreciate the debilitating effect of severe bowel or bladder incontinence.
The Social Security Administration’s job is to determine if you are disabled, a legal conclusion based on your age, education and work experience and medical evidence. Your doctor’s role is to provide the Social Security Administration with information concerning the degree of your medical impairment. Your doctor’s description of your capacity for work is called a medical source statement and the Social Security Administration’s conclusion about your work capacity is called a residual functional capacity assessment. Residual functional capacity is what you can still do despite your limitations. The Social Security Administration asks that medical source statements include a statement about what you can still do despite your impairments.
The Social Security Administration must consider your treating doctor’s opinion and, under appropriate circumstances, give it controlling weight.
The Social Security Administration evaluates the weight to be given your doctor’s opinion by considering:
- The nature and extent of the treatment relationship between you and your doctor.
- How well your doctor knows you.
- The number of times your doctor has seen you.
- Whether your doctor has obtained a detailed picture over time of your impairment.
- Your doctor’s specialization.
- The kinds and extent of examinations and testing performed by or ordered by your doctor.
- The quality of your doctor’s explanation of your impairment.
- The degree to which your doctor’s opinion is supported by relevant evidence, particularly medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.
- How consistent your doctor’s opinion is with other evidence.
When to Ask Your Doctor for an Opinion
If your application for social security disability benefits has been denied and you have appealed, you should get a medical source statement (your doctor’s opinion about what you can still do) from your doctor to use as evidence at the hearing.
When is the best time to request an opinion from your doctor? Many disability attorneys wait until they have reviewed the file and the hearing is scheduled before requesting an opinion from the treating doctor. This has two advantages.
- First, by waiting until your attorney has fully reviewed the file, he or she will be able to refine the theory of why you cannot work and will be better able to seek support for this theory from the treating doctor.
- Second, the report will be fresh at the time of the hearing.
But this approach also has some disadvantages.
- When there is a long time between the time your attorney first sees you and the time of the hearing, a lot of things can happen. You can improve and go back to work. Your lawyer can still seek evidence that you were disabled for a certain length of time. But then your lawyer will be asking the doctor to describe your ability to work at some time in the past, something that not all doctors are good at.
- You might change doctors, or worse yet, stop seeing doctors altogether because your medical insurance has run out. When your attorney writes to a doctor who has not seen you recently, your attorney runs the risk that the doctor will be reluctant to complete the form. Doctors seem much more willing to provide opinions about current patients than about patients whom they have not seen for a long time.
Here is an alternative. Suggest that your attorney request your doctor to complete a medical opinion form on the day you retain your attorney. This will provide a snapshot description of your residual functional capacity (RFC) early in the case. If you improve and return to work, the description of your RFC provides a basis for showing that you were disabled for a specific period. If you change doctors, your attorney can get an opinion from the new doctor, too. If you stop seeing doctors, at least your attorney has one treating doctor opinion and can present your testimony at the hearing to establish that you have not improved.
If you continue seeing the doctor but it has been a long time since the doctor’s opinion was obtained, just before the hearing your attorney can send the doctor a copy of the form completed earlier, along with a blank form and a cover letter asking the doctor to complete a new form if your condition has changed significantly. If not, your attorney can ask the doctor to send a one-line letter that says there have been no significant changes since the date the earlier form was completed.
There are times, though, that your attorney needs to consider not requesting a report early in the case.
- First, depending on the impairment, if you have not been disabled for twelve months, it is usually better that your attorney wait until the twelve-month duration requirement is met.
- Second, if you just began seeing a new doctor, it is usually best to wait until the doctor is more familiar with your condition before requesting an opinion.
- Third, if there are competing diagnoses or other diagnostic uncertainties, it is usually best that your attorney wait until the medical issues are resolved before requesting an opinion.
- Fourth, a really difficult judgment is involved if your medical history has many ups and downs, e.g., several acute phases, perhaps including hospitalizations, followed by significant improvement. Your attorney needs to request an opinion at a time when the treating doctor will have the best longitudinal perspective on your impairment.