Judges rebuke Social Security for errors as disability denials stack up

By Lisa Rein: Complete Post through this link…

Hurled from a road-paving machine, Michael Sheldon tumbled 50 feet down a Colorado slopeand struck a mound of boulders headfirst on a summer day in 2006.After eight surgeries to his head, neck and spinal cord, his debilitating headaches, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress have made it impossible to return to his work preparing roads for new subdivisions.

Yet for more than a decade, the Social Security Administration repeatedly deniedSheldon’sfull claim for disability benefits that would pay him $1,415 a month.

Even after threefederal judges found significant errors with how his case was handled and sent it back to Social Security for new hearings, the agency continued to reject Sheldon, court documents show.

“They’ve done everything to prolong this to get me to quit,” he said after testifying in March at his fifth hearing. Now 59, he lives with his wife in a trailer in Cortez, Colo., and depends on food stamps and state benefits for the indigent. “I can’t replace the battery on a vehicle. Why has this taken 14 years?”

Like Sheldon, thousands of other disabled Americans battle for years for benefits, even after federal courts rule in their favor.

In the last two fiscal years, federal judges considering appeals for denied benefits found fault with almost 6 in every 10 cases and sent them back to administrative law judges at Social Security for new hearings — the highest rate of rejections in years, agency statistics show. Court remands are on pace to reach similar levels this year.

Federal judges have complained of legal errors, inaccurate assessments of whether claimants can work, failures to consider medical evidence andfactual mistakes, according to court rulings and Social Security’s own data. The scathing opinions have come from district and appellate court judges across the political spectrum, from conservatives appointed byPresident Ronald Reagan to liberal appointees of President Barack Obama.

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