People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Reverses Decision Denying Social Security Disability Benefits

Biden Judge Reverses Decision Denying Social Security Disability Benefits

Judge Jennifer Sung, nominated by President Biden to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals, wrote a 2-1 decision that reversed rulings by a district court and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that denied social security disability benefits to a person suffering severe seizures and headaches. The March 2024 decision was in Ferguson v O’Malley.


What is the background of this case?                        

Danny Ray Ferguson applied for Social Security disability benefits because of severe headaches and seizures that have prevented him from working. Medical testimony and evidence at a hearing before an ALJ showed that he suffers from malformation of his brain, a history of epilepsy, continued headaches and seizures, “borderline intellectual functioning,” and a “depressive disorder.” Ferguson testified that he currently experiences severe headaches “that last up to two days, two or three times a week,” and that they cause “pressure so intense that he cannot leave his room.”

Although he acknowledged that Ferguson suffers from impairments, the ALJ “discounted Ferguson’s testimony regarding the severity and frequency of his headaches,” and determined that he was not disabled and that there were some “jobs in the national economy” that he “could perform.” A district court affirmed the ALJ decision and Ferguson appealed to the Ninth Circuit.


How Did Judge Sung and the Ninth Circuit Rule and Why Is It Important?

 Judge Sung wrote a 2-1 decision that reversed the rulings of the district court and the ALJ and directed that the case should be sent back to the ALJ so that Ferguson could try to prove his claims under proper legal standards. The primary mistake made by the ALJ, Judge Sung explained, was that he discounted  Ferguson’s testimony about the severity of his headaches without “providing specific, clear, and convincing reasons for doing so.” Previous case law, Sung continued, makes this requirement clear.

Instead, Sung noted, the ALJ stated generally that Ferguson’s testimony concerning the “intensity, persistence, and limiting effects” of his headaches was not “entirely consistent with the medical evidence” without the required clear and convincing reasons. Although dissenting Judge Johnnie Rawlinson (nominated by President Clinton) disagreed, Judge Sung concluded for the majority that the ALJ had “improperly rejected” or discounted Ferguson’s “testimony as to the severity of his pain and symptoms.”

Judge Sung’s decision was obviously important to Danny Ray Ferguson, who will now have the opportunity to obtain disability benefits using proper legal standards. The ruling also reinforces an important precedent concerning the requirement that Social Security officials must accept subjective testimony of people who testify about severe pain and disorder unless they have “specific, clear and convincing” reasons to the contrary. This is particularly true in the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, Arizona, Alaska, Washington, Hawaii, Idahp, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.  In addition, the decision serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judge Sung to our federal courts.