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Trump Judge Tries to Affirm Denial of Social Security Disability Benefits: Confirmed Judges Confirmed Fears

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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Eighth Circuit judge David Stras argued in dissent that the court should affirm a ruling dismissing review of a denial of Social Security disability insurance benefits. In an opinion by a George W. Bush nominee, the majority rejected that view and remanded the case for further factfinding concerning the applicant’s degenerative knee joint disease.  The July 2020 case is Noerper v. Saul.

Angela Noerper has previously worked as a waitress and at other jobs requiring standing and walking. She was in a car accident in 2009 and has not been able to work since 2010. She filed for Social Security disability insurance benefits several years later. Following initial denial of her application, she received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

The ALJ determined that Noerper was suffering from “severe impairments of degenerative joint disease in her knees” as well as other medical conditions, but concluded that none were equivalent to a “listed impairment” by Social Security and that although she was not able to return to any of her previous jobs, she could perform other “light work” and should not be considered disabled. A district court denied her petition for review and she appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

In a 2-1 opinion by George W. Bush appointee Michael Melloy, the court of appeals reversed the ruling below and sent the case back for additional factual development concerning Noerper’s “functional limitations on walking and standing” caused by her degenerative knee joint disease. The majority opinion thoroughly reviewed the evidence in the record. The majority concluded that there was “no reliable evidence” to support the ALJ’s determination that Noerper could stand or walk for 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. In addition, the majority explained that the record lacks “meaningful justification” for the ALJ contradicting agency regulations and favoring the opinion of a general practitioner who saw Ms. Noerper over that of an orthopedic specialist. The specialist had found that she had suffered a “marked” loss of cartilage that results in pain and “limited range of motion” and weakness in her left leg.

Stras dissented in two sentences. With no further explanation, he claimed that there was “enough in the record” to justify the ALJ’s conclusion and that we have “everything we need to affirm.”

Fortunately, the majority took Ms. Noerper’s disability claims more seriously, and sent the case back so that the ALJ can more fully develop the record and she can have another opportunity to show that she should receive disability benefits. If it had been up to Stras, however, she would have no such opportunity.