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Disability Denial Ignored Specifics of Man’s Case

(CN) - The fact that some people with cerebral palsy can work cashier jobs does not foreclose disability benefits to one man with the disorder, the 9th Circuit ruled, calling for an analysis of his specific limitations.

Igor Zavalin was born in Russia, and suffers from cerebral palsy, a learning disorder, and a speech impediment.

He moved to the United States with his family when he was 13 and received Supplement Security Income disability benefits until his 18th birthday in December 2008.

After the Social Security Administration concluded that Zavalin was no longer disabled, an administrative law judge, or ALJ, tasked with reviewing that finding held a hearing on the matter in September 2010.

At the hearing, the judge questioned a vocational expert about what "simple jobs" still remained possible for a person with Zavalin's limitations. The expert mentioned cashier or a surveillance-system monitor, someone a company hires to monitor surveillance footage.

Both those jobs require what the Department of Labor calls "Level 3 Reasoning," meaning: "the ability to deal with problems involving several concrete variables and apply commonsense understanding to carry out instructions furnished in written, oral, or diagrammatic form."

In a written decision, the ALJ concluded that Zavalin could do "simple, routine tasks" and "simple, repetitive tasks," and that he is not disabled because he could work as a cashier or surveillance system monitor.

That same year, Zavalin graduated high school with a modified diploma.

A federal judge in Oregon affirmed the ALJ's decision, but the 9th Circuit reversed Friday.

The three-judge panel found it improper for the administrative law judge to ignore the conflict between Zavalin's "residual functional capacity and the reasoning requirements" of working as a cashier or surveillance monitor.

The Social Security Administration failed to sway the Portland-based Panel that Zavalin "is presumptively capable of Level 3 Reasoning" because he graduated from high school.

"There is no rigid correlation between reasoning levels and the amount of education that a claimant has completed," Judge Jacqueline Nguyen wrote for the panel.

"While Zavalin's educational background is relevant, the [Labor Department's] reasoning levels clearly correspond to the claimant's ability because they assess whether a person can 'apply' increasingly difficult principles of rational thought and 'deal' with increasingly complicated problems," the ruling continues.

Finding that Zavalin merely graduated high school also ignores that he took special education classes and graduated with a modified diploma, the court found.

As to Zavalin's success in high school math classes, and his use of computers and video games, the panel expressed skepticism.

"Even if we were to consider this evidence, we are not persuaded that it shows Zavalin possesses the requisite reasoning ability because there is no indication of the extent or manner of his computer use, or the complexity of the video games," Nguyen wrote.

Judges Ronald Gould and Morgan Christen concurred.

Finding that the administrative law judge's failure to resolve the conflict was not harmless, the panel remanded the case to the District Court.

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