Lupus and Social Security Disability
Disseminated (systemic) lupus erythematosus can be a debilitating medical condition deserving of Social Security disability benefits. This material surveys the more significant cases discussing the medical condition in a Social Security disability context. Please note that discoid lupus should be distinguished from systemic lupus erythematosus in terms of medical significance.
Develop the record regarding all symptoms including arthritis, joint pain, kidney or blood disorders, skin eruptions, and/or fever. Be sure your subjective complaints are corroborated with medical evidence from the treating medical providers.
20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Listing of Impairments
Disseminated (systemic) lupus erythematosus (“SLE”) usually involves more than one body system and should be evaluated under Listings 14.02 and 14.04. Listing 14.02 provides that SLE is characterized clinically by constitutional symptoms and signs (e.g., fever, fatigability, malaise, weight loss), multisystem involvement, and, frequently, anemia, leukopenia, or thrombocytopenia. Immunologically, an array of circulating serum auto-antibodies can occur, but are highly variable in pattern. Generally, the medical evidence will show that patients with this disease will fulfill the 1982 Revised Criteria for the Classification of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus of the American College of Rheumatology. (Tan, E.M., et al., Arthritis Rheum. 25: 1271-1277, 1982).
Listing 14.06 governs “undifferentiated connective tissue disorders” and includes syndromes with clinical and immunologic features of several connective tissue disorders that do not satisfy the criteria for any of the disorders described. For instance, the individual may have clinical features of systemic lupus erythematosus and systemic vasculitis and the serologic findings of rheumatoid arthritis. It also includes overlap syndromes with clinical features of more than one established connective tissue disorder.
The specific requirements of Listing 14.02 for systemic lupus erythematosus include documentation of:
A. One of the following:
- Joint involvement, as described under the criteria in 1.00; or
- Muscle involvement, as described under the criteria in 14.05; or
- Ocular involvement, as described under the criteria in 2.00ff; or
- Respiratory involvement, as described under the criteria in 3.00ff; or
- Cardiovascular involvement, as described under the criteria in 4.00ff or 14.04D; or
- Digestive involvement, as described under the criteria in 5.00ff; or
- Renal involvement, as described under the criteria in 6.00ff; or
- Skin involvement, as described under the criteria in 8.00ff; or
- Neurological involvement, as described under the criteria in 11.00ff; or
- Mental involvement, as described under the criteria in 12.00ff.
B. Lesser involvement of two or more organs/body systems listed in paragraph A, with significant, documented, constitutional symptoms and signs of severe fatigue, fever, malaise, and weight loss. At least one of the organs/body systems must be involved to at least a moderate level of severity.
Applicable Case Law
The ALJ’s refusal to permit the claimant to subpoena a treating and reporting physician as to whether the claimant actually suffered from lupus was proper. Yancey v. Apfel, 145 F.3d 106, 116 (2d Cir. 1998).
In Newton, the Fifth Circuit noted that the ALJ improperly ignored the claimant’s “claims of severe fatigue, weakness, and swelling, all of which are completely consistent with a diagnosis of SLE.” Newton v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 448, 459 (5th Cir. 2000).
In Dowles v. Barnhart, 258 F. Supp.2d 478 (W.D. La. 2003), the court held that the ALJ erred in failing to consider whether the claimant’s systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) met the requirements of Listing 14.02. Id. at 486. Instead, the ALJ gave “a bare and summary conclusion that a plaintiff does not meet the criteria of any listing,” a finding which is “beyond meaningful judicial review.” Id. The ALJ also erred in relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to find that the claimant was not disabled given the fact that SLE is a nonexertional impairment and given the ALJ’s failure to consider the side effects of the claimant’s medication and the impact of periodic SLE flare-ups on her ability to keep a job. Id. at 486 n. 7. The court then evaluated this case in accordance with Listing 14.02 and found that the claimant met at least six of the 11 listed criteria (with only four being necessary to support a finding of SLE), thereby meeting the threshold requirement for Listing 14.02.Id.at 487. The court further held that the claimant’s lupus met Listing 14.02(A)(8), for severe involvement of her skin from SLE since at least the time she filed her claim for benefits on June 3, 1997 (protective filing date), as well as Listing 14.02(B), by meeting the criteria for “lesser involvement” of two or more organs/body systems as well as its requirement of “severe fatigue, fever, malaise, and weight loss.” Id. at 488-49.
In Crouch v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 909 F.2d 852 (6th Cir. 1990), there was not substantial evidence of at least four out of eleven possible criteria required for a positive diagnosis of lupus. Id.at 856. The court also found that there was no objective medical evidence to confirm the severity of the alleged pain and that the objectively determined medical condition could reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged disabling pain. Id. Specifically, the medical record showed that although there was diffused tenderness in multiple joints and along the paraspinal musculature, there were no definite ongoing inflammatory signs of swelling, redness or heat in the major joints of any of the extremities. Based on these findings, the court found that there was not substantial evidence of severe disabling pain due to lupus. Id.
Where the only evidence that the claimant’s SLE was of disabling severity during the period in question consisted solely of her testimony and affidavits by her husband, her daughter, and a boarder, the Commissioner’s findings were supported by substantial evidence. Gayton v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 691 F. Supp. 22, 24 (N.D. Ohio 1988).
Where the signs and symptoms of the claimant’s condition were so equivocal that her doctors could not even render a definite diagnosis of SLE, the claimant’s SLE or lupus-type impairment was not severe. Buettner v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 686 F. Supp. 616, 618 (W.D. Mich. 1988).
Although the ALJ concluded that the claimant did have lupus, his decision that she was not disabled was not based on substantial evidence. Micus v. Bowen, 979 F.2d 602, 609 (7th Cir. 1992). As noted by the Micus court, lupus is a chronic, relapsing inflammatory disease that attacks connective tissues and is characterized by a wide range of symptoms, including arthritis, pain in the joints, kidney and blood disorders, skin eruptions, and fever. Id.,citing Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary 958 (27th ed. 1988). Although lupus is incurable and its cause unknown, medications (such as corticosteroids) can, at least temporarily, moderate its effects on many sufferers. Lupus may lie dormant or quiescent, exhibiting no or slight manifestations, only to flare suddenly and become debilitating. Id. at 603.
A district court held that there was objective evidence supporting the claimant’s subjective complaints where the ALJ’s own medical advisor stated that “[l]upus patients may develop joint pains . . . that are not accompanied by inflammatory changes.” Martin v. Sullivan, 750 F. Supp. 964, 970 (S.D. Ind. 1990).
Where the claimant suffered from drug induced lupus, even though she had a positive ANA reading, her condition did not meet the requirements of the listing for disseminated lupus erythmatosus, contained in Section 10.04 of the Listing of Impairments. Predki v. Heckler, 622 F. Supp. 495, 501 (N.D. Ill. 1985).
Where the claimant suffered from lupus and fibromyalgia, the Eighth Circuit held that the ALJ improperly evaluated her subjective complaints of pain and failed to give proper weight to the opinions of her treating physicians. Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 590 (8th Cir. 1998).
The fact that a treating physician noted that the claimant’s lupus was “in remission” and “ha[d] stabilized” did not mean that the claimant’s symptoms had gone away or that they did not exist. Gude v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 791, 793 (8th Cir. 1992). The Eighth Circuit concluded that substantial evidence failed to support the ALJ’s conclusions that the claimant’s claims of pain and discomfort were not credible and that the claimant could do sedentary work. Id.
Because the ALJ failed to consider the progressive nature of the claimant’s spinal impairments and the relapsing, remitting nature of her systemic lupus, and failed to consider the combined effect of her impairments, both mental and physical, the medical evidence did not show, as the ALJ found, that the claimant’s condition had not significantly deteriorated since her onset date. Bowman v. Barnhart, 310 F.3d 1080, 1084 (8th Cir. 2002).
The court held in Gillette v. Barnhart, 291 F. Supp.2d 1071 (D.N.D. 2003) that the opinions of two treating physicians, that as a result of the claimant’s lupus, she lacked the endurance for full-time employment, were improperly disregarded by the ALJ and should have been accorded controlling weight. Id.at 1076. In so holding, the court noted that both physicians agreed in their assessments, the opinions were based upon having treated the claimant for several years (in contrast to the conclusions of the agency physicians who never examined her), and the medical record revealed a patient with the chronic and progressive disorder of lupus whose symptoms have followed a declining pattern of peaks and valleys. Id. The court also noted that the claimant’s reported activities were consistent with the nature of her lupus, stating:
[I]t tends to flare up and then subside only to flare-up again. The pain and fatigue come and go. It is clear that a person with lupus has good days on which she can be fairly active and bad days when little, if anything, can be accomplished.
Id. at 1078. The court concluded that, considering the totality of the record, the claimant’s limitations and disabilities presented a clear picture of a person who could not hold down a full-time position and reversed and remanded for an award of benefits. Id.
Where the medical evidence did not support that the claimant was suffering from ongoing severe symptoms of lupus, and the claimant had not been restricted by her physician from working more than part-time except in the letter generated at the request of her attorney just prior to her social security hearing, the ALJ properly determined that she did not suffer from a severe impairment. Meyer v. Callahan, 980 F. Supp. 1069, 1078 (W.D. Mo. 1997).
Because the record did not provide sufficient insight into the effects of SLE or what functional limitations were caused by this condition, and due to the illegibility of statements by the claimant’s treating physician who was then deceased, remand was required for further development. Bell v. Heckler, 609 F. Supp. 213, 216 (W.D. Mo. 1985).
In Reed v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 838 (9th Cir. 2001), the Ninth Circuit held that the ALJ rejected, for an improper reason, the claimant’s request for a consultative examination by a rheumatologist for a claimant who suffered from lupus. Id. at 839. Specifically, the ALJ’s decision not to order the consultative examination was not based on a determination that the evidence already in the record was sufficient, but on the ALJ’s perception that both rheumatologists recruited by the state agency were unable or unwilling to provide reliable opinions on matters of rheumatology. Id. at 843. As there was no material in the record which supported this conclusion, the refusal to order the examination amounted to an “ad hoc, across-the-board disqualification of State-recruited consultative medical examiners” which exceeded the ALJ’s authority. Id. at 844. Thus, the court reversed and remanded and directed that, on remand, the matter be assigned to a different ALJ. Id. at 845.
A full range of motion, lack of synovitis, and intact motor function did not provide evidence that a claimant’s systemic lupus could not give rise to pain in her lower extremities and dizziness. Swindle v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 226 (11th Cir. 1990). On this basis, the Eleventh Circuit found that the ALJ’s determination that her testimony regarding pain and dizziness was only partially credible was not supported by substantial evidence. Id.
The district court found that because it was clear that the claimant’s impairments fell within the listings for rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythmatosis, the ALJ’s finding of no disability was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Heidig v. Heckler, 608 F. Supp. 135, 142 (S.D. Fla.1985).
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