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Judge Wrongly 'Played Doctor' in Fybromyalgia Case

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 11, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judges sometimes wear more than one hat on the bench.

They always wear the rule-maker hat. In court trials, they also become fact-finders. And in some criminal cases, they may look like the executioner.

But the judge should not have "played doctor" in Akin v. Berryhill. That's not the judge's job, said the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.


In 2011, Rebecca Akin claimed she became disabled due to fibromyalgia, back and neck pain, and headaches. X-rays and MRI scans showed she had fused disks and other physical issues. She began therapy, but her conditions worsened.

After repeated emergency-room visits for acute pain, she started a series of medications. Still, she had trouble sleeping, walking, and performing household chores.

She applied for supplemental Social Security income, but an administrative law judge denied her claim. The judge relied on two doctors who reviewed her records, reviewed the records himself, and said she could do sedentary work.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit said the ALJ erred. The appeals panel said the judge "impermissibly 'played doctor'" by evaluating the MRI scans himself.

Not Qualified

The appeals court said the judge was not qualified to evaluate MRI scans.

"The MRI results may corroborate Akin's complaints, or they may lend support to the ALJ's original interpretation, but either way the ALJ was not qualified to make his own determination without the benefit of an expert opinion," the court said in an unsigned opinion.

To avoid the error, the judge could have sought an updated medical opinion. But because he put on the wrong hat, the appeals court vacated the judgment and remanded.

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