Is an Intellectual Disability a Sufficient Basis to Consider Awarding SSI Benefits

By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ SSI & Special Needs Trust Attorney

As you may know, SSI applies to individuals who may have some physical or mental disability that prevents him or her from gainfully working, allowing him or her to receive federal and state benefits from the government.  But what about an intellectual disability?  Someone who may not have a diagnosed condition such as Asperger’s or Down syndrome, yet has a low IQ and cannot even perform the simplest tasks without some sort of help.  As the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates in Taylor v. Colvin, evidence that someone is disabled intellectually can be sufficient to warrant benefits.

Taylor had an IQ of 75.  She was at a fourth-grade reading level when she was a senior at high school.  Her mother helped her get dressed, washed her hair, and take her medications.  She becomes stressed easily and cries when overwhelmed.  She isn’t allowed to cook herself, and has regular seizures.  One psychologist stated that she had difficulty understanding instructions and was hesitant to provide answers.  Another stated that she could understand, remember, and carry out simple tasks, and was not significantly limited in her cognitive abilities (which the court downplayed because it stated there was no basis in the record such that the psychologist could come to this opinion).  The only job Taylor had was volunteering an hour a week at a library to fold brochures, put address labels on a monthly magazine, and cut slips and notices, which she completed, but not without a list her mother wrote for her to make sure she stayed on task.

The administrative law judge considering her appeal for the denial of SSI benefits concluded that she could perform tasks at a fourth or fifth grade level and was slowly maturing, making her capable of full-time work.  He noted that the work at the library showed she was slowly maturing and capable of higher functioning, even though, as the 7th Circuit points out, the librarian would not give her more tasks beyond the ones given to her, finding her incapable of handling beyond what was given.  A vocational expert testified that Taylor would be capable of doing routine or unskilled work with no exposure to hazards.  While these jobs wouldn’t be fast-paced, they required accuracy with limited supervision.  The 7th Circuit noted that many different professionals concluded Taylor needed to be watched and possibly redirected if going off-track with her work. Because of this, and the ALJ’s reliance on the psychological expert who stated that she could understand, remember, and carry out simple tasks while downplaying the significance of other experts and testimony, the court remanded the hearing down to the Social Security office for further consideration.

As I mentioned in previous blogs, appeals from an administrative agency are often upheld by the court.  With SSA appeals, there is another layer of appeal one can go through that New Jersey does not have.  A magistrate judge at the district court reviews the ruling instead of going straight up to the circuit Court of Appeals.  In this case, the magistrate upheld the appeal.  But in a short and casually written opinion, the 7th circuit basically asked the Social Security field office and the ALJ “Are you serious?  This girl cannot function in society.”  I don’t know if she did receive benefits (although reading this opinion, she likely did) but it goes to show that somebody who cannot perform menial tasks properly without constant supervision and assistance may be qualified to receive SSI benefits.

To discuss your NJ Special Needs Trust matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at  Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.