New London woman continues eight-year fight for disability benefits
By CHRISTINIA CRIPPES
NEW LONDON — In the past eight years, Americans have seen everything from New York City attacked by terrorists to the first black president inaugurated.
New London resident Karen Malcom remembers September 2001 as the time she first filed for Social Security Disability Insurance and the beginning of 2009 as when she learned her case would be heard for a third time.
“Either I am or I am not (disabled). That’s what I want them to tell me,” Malcom said. “It’s got to stop. Laws are there for a purpose.”
She added: “How can it have taken seven years, and they still don’t know?”
Malcom realized she can’t fight alone, so she recently enlisted the help of 2nd District U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa.
In the couple weeks since she has talked with a case worker for the congressman, she’s already received word that he’s gone to bat for her.
She received a note in mid-March informing her a staff member has contacted the Social Security Administration Office of Disability and Adjudications Review in West Des Moines.
“Too often, cases like Karen Malcom’s get lost in the shuffle,” Loebsack said via e-mail. “We are doing everything we can to cut through the red tape and enable Ms. Malcom to receive her Social Security disability.”
In the time Malcom has been waiting for benefits, she has not only seen the world around her change, but she’s also seen her own daughters grow older — the younger was 4 when Malcom first filed and is now 12. Malcom has even become a grandmother.
“Most people do get denied there at those (first) two stages,” Malcom said. “Almost everyone has to be heard at least once.”
Malcom had no idea, though, that she’d have to be heard by three judges and be denied no fewer than a half-dozen times.
Even experts say Malcom’s experiences are unusual.
“That is atypical in my opinion,” said Ed Swierczek, a senior claims consultant from Allsup Inc., a Social Security disability services company. “However, it is not impossible, as she found out.”
Swierczek, who has 35 years experience in the field, said remands occur for various reasons — such as a judge making a vocational decision without consulting an expert or simply personal bias — but not often multiple times. Malcom’s case has been remanded twice.
“It may well be closer to 20 percent get remanded,” Swierczek said.
Worse for Malcom, Dan Allsup, communications director with the company, said age 50 is often when people start being considered seriously. Malcom is 46.
Malcom’s physical pain started when she finished her shift at a local factory one day in March of 1999. At the time, she was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome.
“The swelling was so sudden and severe in my fingers that my hands went from a normal appearance to a club-like appearance, preceded with intense pain,” Malcom said.
After being denied a referral to see her company’s doctor, she sought her own in June 1999.
She under went surgery and returned to work 11 weeks later. Within two months, the symptoms reappeared, and by a year later the diagnosis was worse.
Malcom still had symptoms of carpal tunnel, but she also was diagnosed with moderate cubital tunnel syndrome in her left elbow.
“They were not telling me I would not get better,” Malcom said. “By the time, I knew it, two years went by.”
Malcom was finally unable to return to work in the summer of 2001.
Malcom started working at 15, when she took her first job at the local Dairy Queen. Since 22, she has worked in various factory jobs in the region.
“You don’t get these diagnoses without working hard,” Malcom said.
In September 2001, on the advice of a local attorney, she applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.
Not only did her troubles increase from that point, but so too did her list of ailments. She’s been to three pain clinics and seen at least a dozen doctors.
Malcom has been diagnosed with temporomandibular joint syndrome, degenerative joint disease, cervical spondylosis and complex regional pain syndrome or reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome.
The last diagnosis usually is caused by surgery and can be precipitated by cervical spondylosis.
Although CRPS, the complex regional pain syndrome, is not fully understood, the diagnosis became an SSDI qualifying disease in 2003.
“It is in the Social Security rulings,” Malcom said. “I’m going to make them justify their own words.”
According to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site, CRPS is an uncommon, chronic condition that usually affects women 40 to 60 years old in their arms or legs.
“The main symptom is the burning pain, and you just have to quit whatever you’re doing,” Malcom said.
Malcom was further diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
Doctors have told her she has improved somewhat with conservative treatment — which means limiting the amount she is active — and with medicine. She’s taking Oxycodone every six hours instead of the methadone she once was prescribed.
Her daughters refuse to let her take the latter medication due to the harsh side effects she suffered.
Convincing judges that her condition means she can’t hold down a full-time job, however, is a different matter.
“You can have all the medical evidence and a strong case, but if they don’t use it … you’re going nowhere,” Malcom said.
For one, neither administrative law judge has considered her CRPS.
Also, neither judge considered the finding of “no jobs” by vocational experts in ruling against Malcom.
“I would have a better chance of doing lifting than typing, or anything like that that is really repetitious,” Malcom said. “I was the fastest (on the job); I’d hate to be the slowest now.”
Experts have said on top of Malcom’s physical inabilities, she is unable to handle the mental stress.
Allsup representative Swierczek said another common reason for a remand is the judge fails to consider the full range of symptoms that would prevent a person from working.
Ultimately, the first judge denied Malcom because of her desire to do more than she does, rather than her ability to do so, and looked at just a few of Malcom’s many conditions.
Unfortunately, the wording in the law is such that even though a job is unavailable, it only means a person may — rather than should or will — qualify for benefits.
The second judge also threw a false allegation into Malcom’s record that would automatically make her ineligible for benefits. In granting the second remand, the ruling stated that not only was there no basis for the accusation but it was forbidden to be brought into the record at the third hearing.
The first judge finally denied her claim in October 2004, more than three years after she applied.
Allsup said the average wait time in Iowa is 571 days. The longest is 733 days — without counting cases like Malcom’s, which have been remanded.
Malcom’s first remand came in 2007, after she’d already re-filed her claims in May 2005. The second judge denied her claim in January 2008, and Malcom was granted a third hearing in February 2009.
While Malcom hasn’t given up hope, things are starting to look bleak.
Malcom had received some assistance from workers’ compensation for her carpal tunnel and as yet undiagnosed pain problems.
But eventually the bills pile up, and the money runs out.
After the first administrative law judge’s denial in October 2004, Malcom could no longer make ends meet for her and her daughters, Kala and Dakotah.
Her ex-husband and father of the younger Dakotah, Steve Malcom, offered to have them move in with him temporarily. Karen Malcom pays rent to Steve Malcom using the money he provides for child support.
“He’s been the only one that has tried to help us besides my parents,” Karen Malcom said.
She said it’s been hard to watch the one person who has kept the family from becoming homeless live the way he’s been forced to live during the last five years.
“They’re not just hurting me, they’re hurting the people around me that are able to help,” Karen Malcom said. “For five years, he has provided everything for the girls that I couldn’t.”
Through all this, in the back of Karen Malcom’s mind, is that the possibility remains that she will ultimately be denied.
Her Social Security nightmare is she’s going to be offered a deal, which will leave her with some money but not the full benefits she is owed going back to 2001.
“It is known that they do that,” she said.
Because she’s been working since she was 15, Malcom should be granted maximum benefits.
“If they’re not paying it now, what would make us think they’re going to want to pay it then?” Malcom said.
If she’s ultimately denied, she’ll be forced to go back to work — a hard enough task in itself — and she’ll have zero credits toward Social Security Disability benefits.
While Malcom waits for her third hearing — for which a date may not be set and could be as long as the others were — she keeps herself sane by spending time with her 3-year-old grandson Kaiden Holtkamp.
Kaiden suffered a traumatic brain injury after a car accident in February 2008. A social worker has helped Malcom file disability claims for her grandson, so she may have to go through the process again.
Kaiden’s claim already has been denied once by Disability Determination Services.
To keep busy, she spends time constantly revisiting her two binders of case information, still scouring for more details that may have been overlooked in her previous hearings.
She feels so strongly about being represented in the right way that she is considering representing herself to portray her passion.
Allsup spokesmen advise against it, suggesting an attorney or professional representative. Swierczek compared it to people going to H & R Block to get their taxes done rather than taking it on themselves.
“Basically, the entire disability application process is a very lengthy, complex procedure,” Allsup said.
The people who enlist the help of 1984-founded Allsup — if they stick through to the end — have a 98 percent chance of being awarded disability benefits.
People looking to enlist their services are encouraged to visit the Web site http://www.allsup.com.