When the Social Security Administration (SSA) reviews the medical evidence supporting a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, it has long been required that the decisionmaker consider the entire record as a whole.
When SSA fails to meaningfully weigh all the evidence, it may deny a claim based on carefully extracted evidence that is less reliable or supportive of the disability, while ignoring without explanation more weighty medical findings that indicate significant limitations or severe symptoms.
This issue usually arises after an administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing when the ALJ issues a decision that denies the claimant’s disability based on cherry-picked evidence. Typically, the decision ignores, mischaracterizes or diminishes sometimes overwhelming evidence that supports the application.
A related theme is when to deny a claim the ALJ gives more weight to medical opinions of doctors or other professionals who have never examined the claimant than to those of long-term treating physicians without good explanation.
A recent example
A Feb. 2023 U.S. Court of Appeals decision explains cherry-picking and provides clear examples. In that case, Shelley C. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, the court reversed the denial of benefits to a claimant with long-term, severe depression, sending it back to the SSA to grant benefits based on the substantial evidence of disability from debilitating depression.
Some of the points made in the opinion related to cherry-picking evidence and considering the record as a whole:
- The ALJ “ignored” the opinions of the claimant’s treating psychiatrist of two decades. She saw him frequently, he provided ongoing medication management for depression as well as periods of serious treatment procedures. The ALJ called the treatment history “routine and conservative,” which the court described as “simply untrue.”
- The ALJ cherry-picked by “highlighting … good moments and bypassing the bad,” which ignored relevant evidence that supported disability.
- The ALJ mischaracterized several trends in the evidence that favored a disability finding.
It can be helpful to a claim to consult an experienced lawyer who will know how to create a comprehensive written medical record for the SSA to consider. An attorney can monitor agency decisions to understand whether important evidence is falling through the cracks and whether the ALJ engaged in cherry-picking by highlighting and magnifying evidence that is not as supportive of disability instead of considering the entire record that contains strong, consistent evidence of illness or injury, resulting symptoms and limitations they cause to the claimant’s personal life as well as ability to hold a productive job.