Social Security Disability Law and the Obstacles Facing Claimants with Mental Disabilities

Article excerpt


This Article examines the administrative processes and judicial analytical framework that govern the adjudication of Social Security disability claims for persons suffering with mental disorders. Since the enactment of the Social Security Act as a part of President Roosevelt's "New Deal," the federal government has assumed a significant role in providing a minimum level of support for those citizens beset with unfortunate economic hardship. In 1956, the Social Security Act was expanded to provide disability benefits for those unable to attain gainful employment due to a mental or physical impairment. For the mentally disabled, demonstrating eligibility for disability benefits can be complex and challenging. This article examines the Social Security disability program and provides an intriguing analysis of the considerations given to Social Security applicants with mental disorders and the processes used to determine their eligibility for benefits available under the Social Security Act.


Perhaps nothing is more disturbing for persons pursuing disability benefits under Title II (1) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI (2) of the Social Security Act (Act) than to have their claim denied despite substantial evidence that the "claimant" is disabled and qualifies for benefits. For many disabled workers, Social Security disability benefits represent an important source of income for persons unable to earn a living due to a mental or physical impairment. (3) For persons beset with mental disorders such as schizophrenia, mental retardation, or autism, the denial of Social Security disability benefits can be devastating. The plight of Zella Davis provides a troubling example.

In Davis v. Astrue, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Zella Davis's application for Social Security disability benefits and SSI. (4) The Social Security Administration Commissioner (Commissioner) adopted the ALJ's decision. (5) Ms. Davis sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision before a U.S. District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. [section] 205(g) and 42 U.C.S. [section] 1631(c)(3) of the Act. (6) Upon receipt of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court reversed the Commissioner's decision and ordered an award of disability insurance benefits for Ms. Davis. (7) Among the reasons articulated by the court in support of the reversal was the absence of any "substantial evidence" to support the ALJ's decision denying the claimant Social Security disability benefits. (8) Moreover, the court found that Ms. Davis's low IQ score, testimony from her treating psychologist, and evidence of functional illiteracy indicated that Ms. Davis had a deficit in adaptive functioning, which proved that she qualified for Social Security disability benefits. (9) Perhaps most troubling about the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) denial of Ms. Davis's request for benefits is that she was forced to endure multiple proceedings over a four year period before being awarded disability benefits by the federal court. (10)

In light of the substantial evidence, which demonstrated that Ms. Davis was entitled to a disability benefits award, why was her claim delayed? Did the analytical approach used by the SSA and the ALJ properly evaluate the severity of the alleged mental impairment or whether Ms. Davis could achieve gainful employment with rehabilitative support? Why did the ALJ and the Commissioner reject three valid IQ scores that proved that Ms. Davis suffered with mental retardation? Why was Ms. Davis's claim not expedited once a determination was made that she was functionally illiterate? While this mentally retarded claimant eventually was awarded benefits, this case and others noted herein raise important questions about the consideration given to Social Security claimants with mental disorders and the evidence used to resolve the complex variety of mental disability claims. …