When your lupus 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 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 SSA believes you can do heavy, medium, light, or sedentary work in spite of your impairments. The lower your RFC, the less the SSA believes you can do.
An RFC for mental impairments is expressed in terms of whether Social Security Administration believes a claimant can do skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled work in spite of impairments, or whether the claimant cannot even do unskilled work.
No case of SLE should be adjudicated without a detailed history and physical examination and all relevant laboratory tests. Your longitudinal medical records should be carefully reviewed to identify exacerbations and improvements in your clinical condition, since manifestations of SLE can both change and fluctuate in severity.
Because lupus may have such a broad range of effects (see Effects of Lupus), a wide spectrum of possible RFC limitations is possible. Some claimants with SLE have no symptoms because they have had a complete remission with treatment. However, the Social Security Administration adjudicator should not overlook alleged easy fatigability just because you have no unusual results from a physical examination in a resting state.
Environmental limitations against exposure to cold, based on your own statements about tolerable temperatures, can be important. You could also have difficulty tolerating work in hot environments—simply because of the debilitating effect of chronic disease and perhaps medication.
The Social Security Administration should carefully consider the possibility of mental manifestations of lupus, especially if your lupus appeared during childhood. Neuropsychiatric abnormalities in SLE such as headache, mood disorder, and cognitive disorder, are common.
Your Doctor’s Medical Opinion Can Help You Qualify for Social Security Disability Benefits
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.
Medical Opinion Form
Many doctors do not understand the Social Security Administration’s approach to determining disability. That is not surprising, since SSA uses a complicated multi-step approach which at times defies common sense.
Your treating doctor likely needs to be asked specific questions in order to elicit the information SSA requires to make its disability assessment. The best way to obtain information helpful to SSA is to use forms designed to obtain your doctor’s analysis of your impairment and its effect on your daily living activities capacity for work.
We have a large collection of these time-tested forms. However, these forms are not suitable for use by claimants, because they frequently need to be modified for each case by someone knowledgeable about disability determinations. We thus keep our medical opinion forms in a password-protected section of this website accessible only to clients of the firm.
If you would like us to consider taking you on as a client, please complete the claim submission form on this page.
Go back to About Lupus and Disability.