Engagement in Daily Activities Does Not Preclude Recognition of Disability, Rules WA Fed. Court

On November 16, in the Western District of Washington, Magistrate Judge David W. Christel ruled that one’s engagement in daily activities, such as shopping, exercising, or driving, does not automatically preclude the recognition of a disability for purposes of receiving federal benefits. The underlying litigation involved a plaintiff, referred to anonymously as Lee P., challenging the defendant’s, the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner), decision to deny the plaintiff disability benefits on alleged grounds that the plaintiff engaged in daily activities at a level that one who was disabled could not. 

The court explained the pertinent facts as follows: Lee P.. first applied for the Social Security benefits in 2017. He alleged that his time in the military resulted in him developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain throughout his body, and difficulty walking more than a few blocks at a time. Due to these issues, Lee P. provided the Commissioner with evidence that the plaintiff received steroid injections, physical therapy, and electronic stimulation and with medical imaging documenting extreme cervical spine abnormalities. Despite all this evidence, the defendant ruled that the plaintiff failed to prove a disability as his “testimony (is) inconsistent with his functioning as demonstrated by his daily activities…(given the plaintiff) could walk, drive a car, go shopping, spend time with family, go to church, handle his personal care, care for his cat, prepare meals, and handle his own finances.” Additionally, the Commissioner refused to give weight to testimony from the plaintiff’s mother as to why the plaintiff’s engagement in daily activities would not preclude a recognition of a disability, which the defendant recognized as a legal error, but a legal error not actionable due to being harmless. 

Judge Christel remanded the case to the Commissioner once more for a secondary review of the plaintiff’s eligibility for a disability. On remand, the district court instructed the defendant to use the correct standard of review with the correct evidentiary procedures. First, the Commissioner must give weight to testimony from the plaintiff’s mother as the law mandates that “in determining disability, (the Commissioner) must consider lay witness testimony…” or provide specific reasons, in writing, as to why the testimony of said lay-person was rejected. Second, the Commissioner cannot summarily conclude that a certain level of engagement in daily activities will per se exclude the presence of a valid disability. The court noted that the law in this area was clear: “The mere fact that a plaintiff has carried on certain daily activities, such as grocery shopping, driving a car, or limited walking for exercise, does not in any way detract from his credibility as to his overall disability. One does not need to be utterly incapicitated in order to be disabled.” The defendant may only deny disability based on considerations of daily activities if said activities “contract (the plaintiff’s) testimony or meet the threshold for transferable work skills.”

The plaintiff is represented by Maddox & Laffoon.