Many social security applicants who sustain a life changing injury have to deal with the onset of obesity following the injury. The simple reason for this situation is that the applicants lead a more sedentary lifestyle because of the effects of their disability. A rapid weight gain following an injury is a clear indication that the applicant is no longer as active as he was before. However, many Administrative Law Judges do not properly evaluate the applicant s obesity, how it affects the severity of the applicant s other impairments or how it affects the applicant s ability to perform work functions. Under the law, a Judge must provide a thorough evaluation of how an applicant s obesity affects his or her ability to function.
In every claim for Social Security Disability benefits, the Judge must employ a five step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. 416.920. The five steps are as follows: (1) whether the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the applicant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the applicant s impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services as creating a presumption of disability; ( 4) whether the applicant can return to his past relevant employment; and (5) based upon the applicant s age, education and work experience, whether the applicant can make an adjustment to another type of work. 20 C.F.R. 416.920. Prior to 1999, Social Security had a medical listing for obesity that, if met, would establish that the applicant s disability. In 1999, Social Security removed the obesity listing from the appendix of medical listings. However, obesity still remained as a condition that could significantly impair a person s ability to function.
In an effort to give the Judges guidance on how to evaluate obesity, the Social Security Administration published Ruling 02-1p (hereinafter referred to as SSR 02-1p). SSR 02-1p defines obesity as a complex, chronic disease characterized by excessive accumulation of body fat. Obesity is a risk factor that increases an individual s chances of developing impairments in most body systems. It commonly leads to, and often complicates, chronic diseases of the cardiovascular, respiratory and musculoskeletal body systems. SSR 02-1p. In evaluating a medical listing, SSR 02-1p provides that obesity must be evaluated in conjunction with other severe impairments to determine whether the combination of the impairments meets the requirements of a medical listing for disability. This is especially true of musculoskeletal, respiratory and cardiovascular impairments. SSR 02-1p (7). Social Security Rulings do not have the force of law; nevertheless, once published, they are binding on all components of the Social Security Administration. Walton v. Halter, 243 F.3d 703, 708 (3d Cir. 2001). Thus, a Judge is bound by SSR 02-1p.
In Norman v. Astrue, 694 F.Supp.2d 738 (2010), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio addressed an appeal from the denial of benefits by the Social Security Administration and found that a Judge did not fully consider Mr. Norman s obesity. Id. at 741. The Court noted that a Judge is not required to employ a specific mode of analysis when considering the impact of obesity; however, the Judge must still consider the claimant s obesity, in combination with other impairments, at all stages of the sequential evaluation. Id. at 741 citing Nejat v. Comm r of Soc. Sec., 359 Fed. Appx. 574, 577, 2009 WL 4981686 at 3. Simply put, a Judge is required to do more than simply mention the fact of obesity in passing, as courts have routinely remanded cases for failure to consider obesity. Id. citing Macaulay v. Astrue, 262 F.R.D. 381, 390 (D.Vt. 2009), Johnson v. Astrue, 2010 WL 148411, at 18 (S.D. Tex. 2010).
In Norman, the Judge indicated in the decision that the applicant s treating physicians noted that Mr. Norman was markedly overweight. However, the Judge did not provide further analysis as to how Norman s obesity affects his other severe impairments. The Court noted that [i]nstead, the Judge appears to have either discounted or discredited Norman s back pain allegations because he is obese, rather than evaluated whether his obesity exacerbates his back problems. Norman at 749. The Court remanded this matter to the Social Security Administration for proper consideration of Mr. Norman s obesity.
Practitioners should be mindful of this decision and SSR 02-1p when evaluating their client s cases when obesity is an issue. Most Judges will mention in passing that the applicant s obesity is a severe impairment. However, in more cases than not, the Judge will fail to provide additional analysis as to how the applicant s obesity affects their other medical conditions or how it affects their ability to function. A decision without the proper analysis of the applicant s obesity is in violation of SSR 02-1p and should be remanded for further consideration.