Government Document
Translation Services

Court Upholds Social Security Administration’s
Denial of Disability Benefits to
Spanish Speaking Individual

Legal Translation Services for Disability Law Cases

Legal document translation services are often required in disability benefits cases. Rodriguez v. Commissioner of Social Security, Case No. 2:15-cv-585-FtM-CM, decided recently on February 8, 2017 by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, involves a lawsuit filed by a Spanish speaking individual following the denial of his claim for social security benefits.

In 2011, the plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on the grounds that he was unable to work due to a nephrectomy and kidney cancer. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his claim both initially and upon reconsideration. The plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in 2014, at which hearing he was represented by an attorney and assisted by a Spanish language interpreter. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing.  At the hearing, the ALJ asked the vocational expert a hypothetical question regarding jobs that allowed a limited ability to speak English such as unskilled, routine, tasks and work that did not require production quotas or high-paced assembly line jobs.

Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision denying the plaintiff’s claims on the basis that the plaintiff was not disabled. Specifically, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of his allege disability. The ALJ also found that the plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: allergic rhinitis, status-post renal cell carcinoma, fatigue, dyslipidemia, loss of vision in his right eye, and depression. Nevertheless, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff did not “have an impairment or combination of impairments that [met] or medically [equaled] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix.” In evaluating the plaintiff’s alleged mental disorder, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had a mild restriction in the functional area of daily living and a moderate difficulty in the functional area of concentration, persistence or pace.

In evaluating all of the plaintiff’s alleged impairments in totality, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The ALJ did note, however, that the plaintiff’s ability to perform light work was hampered by a number of limitations, including the plaintiff’s inability to speak English fluently. Although the ALJ found that the plaintiff was unable to perform the type of work he had previously performed, the ALJ determined that there were a significant number of jobs in the existing economy that the plaintiff could perform.

In response to the ALJ’s decision, the plaintiff filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied, followed by an appeal with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Ft. Myers Division. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the ALJ’s decision was erroneous in that the ALJ made findings about the plaintiff’s ability to speak and understand English but failed to determine the plaintiff’s ability to read and write English. In this regard, the plaintiff argued that he is “functionally illiterate” because he cannot read English or write anything more than his name in English. The plaintiff claimed that he was even unable to read TV dinner instructions and that he did not have to understand English in order to pass his driver’s license test. The plaintiff further argued that the vocational expert’s list of jobs that the plaintiff could perform was inaccurate because of the ALJ’s failure to include the plaintiff’s illiteracy in the ALJ’s hypothetical question to the expert. In response, the Social Security Commissioner argued that the ALJ had properly accounted for the plaintiff’s limited English skills in the ALJ’s hypothetical question to the vocational expert.

The court held that the ALJ had properly assessed the plaintiff’s literacy. The court reasoned that the plaintiff testified that he has lived in the U.S. since 2007, received a college degree in special education and legal rights in Cuba, moved up on the job while working in the construction industry, and is able to follow and understand road signs in English. Accordingly, the court held that the evidence contradicted the plaintiff’s argument that he could not understand or read simple English.

In arriving at its decision, the court noted that “[a]n ability to communicate in English is defined as the ability to speak, read, and understand English. Id., 20 C.F.R. § 404, 1564(b)(1); Lorenzo v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2011 WL 2681986 at *6 (M.D. Fla. July 7, 2011.) The court explained that the SSA “considers a person’s ability to communicate in English in evaluating what work, if any, he or she can do because a person who does not speak and understand English may have a difficulty doing a job regardless of the person’s level of education in another language.” Id., 20 C.F.R. § 404,1564(b)(5). The court also noted that an “inability to communicate in English is a distinguishable concept from illiteracy” and that a person “is not illiterate if the personally ‘successfully completed the equivalent of a high school education in a foreign country and he understands and can read some English.” Id., citing Davila v. Colvin, 2014 WL 495525 at * 12 (M.D. Fla., Feb. 5, 2014).

Based on the foregoing case law, the court found that the ALJ’s hypothetical question properly accounted for the plaintiff’s limited ability to speak English and held that even if the ALJ did erroneously omit “illiteracy” from his hypothetical question, that this was harmless error because the ALJ’s question was limited to “unskilled, simple, routine” tasks where the ability to communicate in English is generally not required.

The court also made other findings regarding plaintiff’s alleged mental impairments. In affirming the Commissioner’s decision in its entirety, the court stated that the ALJ had applied the proper legal standards and that the ALJ’s determination that the plaintiff was not disabled was supported by “substantial evidence.”

Contact our legal translation company to get an estimate for a government document translation service, or to retain a court interpreter for a hearing or a vocational assessment in Cantonese, Somali, Russian, Nepali, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, French, and other languages.

Up Next: Legal Translation Services
in the Workplace