Monday, October 21, 2013

Qualifying for Disability Benefits: Applicant's Need for a Service Dog Must Be Taken into Account

In Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society, I describe (pp. 235-6) how expenses for a service dog are taken into account in determining whether an applicant is below the income threshold for certain types of benefits, including disability insurance benefits.  The expenses for the service dog are deducted from the applicant's income in determining whether he or she has too much income to qualify.

Another aspect of qualifying for disability concerns the applicant’s capacity to work.  Generally, applicants must establish that it would be very difficult to perform or find a job. A recent federal district court refined this issue by holding that, when determining whether there are jobs available for an applicant, the fact that he will be bringing a service dog with him to the job must be considered. Thus, an applicant with the mental and physical capacity to work in a laundry may not be able to take such a job if the environment would not be a safe place for his service dog.  On the other hand, working as a filing clerk in an office, where the dog could lie under a desk most of the time and keep the applicant from having panic attacks, might be just fine. 

Determination of Administrative Law Judge in Washington State Case

Alexis Santos applied for disability insurance benefits in May 2012, citing major depression, hypertension, anxiety, panic attacks, and carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.  The application was denied in August 2010 and on reconsideration in January 2011.  A hearing was held before an administrative law judge in October 2011, who determined in a decision issued in January 2012 that Santos was not disabled.  Santos filed a complaint in the federal district court for the Western District of Washington in September 2012.  That court has now reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. 

The administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that Santos could perform “medium work,” which might include occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and  could “perform frequent handling and fingering with both hands and should avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and hazards.”  Further, he could “perform simple, repetitive tasks with no public interaction and without a requirement to perform teamwork with co-workers.” 

The ALJ based these conclusions on the testimony of psychologists employed by or consulting with the Washington State Social Security office, but Santos argued to the federal district court that the ALJ had failed to include mental functional limitations mentioned by the psychologists. The federal district court agreed and said that if a claimant such as Santos cannot perform work of a sort that he had previously done, the ALJ “must show that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy the claimant can do.  One vocational expert had indicated that given his “residual functional capacity,” Santos could be a laundry worker, warehouse laborer, mailroom clerk, or office helper. 

Federal District Court Analysis

Santos argued that the ALJ had also failed to take into account his use of a service dog.  The state Social Security administration responded that the record did not indicate that Santos’s use of a service dog had been of significant benefit to him in terms of his mental health symptoms. (As Dr. Thomas and I have pointed out, there is almost no evidence that service animals have curative powers, but some evidence that they make having a disease or condition more tolerable.) 

The federal district court noted that the record indicated that Santos’s panic attacks appeared to be controlled with the help of his service dog, and there was evidence that there had been no panic attacks or agoraphobia since Santos got the dog.  A service dog was not originally prescribed for him, but Douglas Green, MD., subsequently did provide a letter for one.  (A search of the PACER system database indicated that most documents in the federal district court record were sealed for privacy reasons and the letter was not available.) The court noted:

“[T]he vocational expert testified that in regard to the warehouse laborer and laundry worker jobs, having a service dog in the workplace ‘would probably be an accommodation,’ and that it would ‘[n]ot likely [be allowed] in a warehouse or a laundry.’ … Thus, to the extent that plaintiff would be required to have a service dog at work both of those jobs likely would be eliminated. The vocational expert went on to testify that it was ‘not impossible to consider the mailroom clerk [job] as a possibility for’ use of a service dog, and that ‘[o]ther work’ in that respect ‘would be something like an office helper’ … but clearly this testimony is less than conclusive in that regard. Nor did the vocational expert, as plaintiff also points out, testify as to how many of the mailroom clerk and office helper jobs she identified would accommodate use of a service dog.”

The court noted that a mailroom clerk would not be appropriate for another reason, namely that Santos did not have the needed reasoning level.  The court concluded:

“[T]here is at least some evidence in the record that plaintiff’s use of a service dog is medically necessary. There also is evidence in the record that failure to accommodate the use thereof may have a significant adverse impact on the ability of plaintiff to function mentally, including in the workplace.  Such evidence constitutes significant probative evidence that the ALJ should have discussed in her decision, but failed to do so…. This failure on the part of the ALJ thus constitutes reversible error.” 


Because of the remand, Santos could still lose the case if the Washington Social Security agency determines that, even taking the service dog and other factors into account, he could still find work.  More and more work environments are getting used to the idea of having employees who come with service dogs, so it is not impossible that Santos will still be denied disability benefits. 

The case is important in showing that an applicant for disability benefits has the right to have the use of a service dog taken into account in determining the availability of potential jobs.  There are a number of situations where the work environment would be fundamentally altered by the presence of a dog, even a service dog, and equipment and other factors might actually be dangerous for the animal, but there are also many office and other jobs where a service dog could and should be easily accommodated.

Santos v. Colvin, 3:12-cv-05827-KLS, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130810 (W.D. Wash. 2013)

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