Lindsay Lohan’s ordeal with Drugs and Alcohol: Is she disabled?

Would Ms. Lohan qualify for Social Security Disability?

Lindsay Lohan’s recent ordeal got me thinking about how Social Security might view her if she were trying to get Social Security disability benefits.  I don’t really know if she has a medical diagnosis of a drug or alcohol problem.  So one can only speculate.

The law changed in 1996

In 1996 Congress dramatically changed how they wanted the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) to evaluate a claimant who suffers from a substance abuse disorder.  With the intention to curb the use of government issued checks to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol, changes now prohibit disability benefits if drug addiction and/or alcoholism (“DA&A”)  are found to be “contributing factors material to the disability.”

How does SSA determine disability in DA&A cases?

Guidance from SSA to decision makers explains that while not all claimants who have medical evidence of DA&A use will be precluded from receiving disability benefits, a special question must be considered when the person is disabled and there is medical evidence of DA&A.  The Social Security  Judge must ask:

  • Would the claimant still be disabled if he/she stopped using drugs or alcohol?

How do they do that?  Well, easier said than done.  When there have been no real periods of sobriety, the evaluation may be extremely difficult.  SSA has stated:

If substance abuse cannot be separated out from other mental illnesses, the claimant should be found disabled.

But federal courts have not really followed this guidance.  This guidance is from an “emergency teletype” to staff which was circulated in 1996, so it doesn’t quite carry the weight that a regulation or a more official statement would carry.

What does medical evidence of DA&A mean?

The emergency teletype explains:

Medical evidence of DA&A is evidence from an acceptable medical source sufficient and appropriate to establish a medically determinable substance use disorder.  A claimant’s own statement about his condition, e.g., “I am an alcoholic or drug addict,” is considered evidence, but alone is insufficient to establish the existence of DA&A even when the claimant’s statement of admission is reported by an acceptable medical source.

What is a medically determinable substance use disorder?

A medical condition described as Substance Dependence and Substance Abuse Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (“DSM-IV”); i.e. conditions in which the individual’s maladaptive pattern of substance use leads to clinically significant impairment or distress.

More changes to come

We may see some new changes on the horizon.  This January SSA published a notice requesting comments on their “operating procedures” related to the handling of DA&A cases.  No one (I know) can quite figure out why the Agency decided to seek comments now.  But it does seem that they are looking at this issue and are planning some changes in the near future.

If you need more help with Social Security Disability, Call toll free at 1-800-481-0302.  Or visit our website.