(CN) - A few years of spotty and unsuccessful janitorial work does not disqualify a mentally disturbed man from financial assistance, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Samuel Stephens, the middle-aged son of a deceased railroad worker, applied to the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board for benefits under a provision of the Railroad Retirement Act that offers an annuity to the disabled children of retired worker.
To qualify, the children must prove that they were disabled before the age of 22 and remained "continuously disabled" thereafter.
Stephens, who was diagnosed with severe mental and emotional problems at age 14, claims that he fits both categories.
The Railroad Retirement Board disagreed, but the federal appeals court in Seattle reversed Wednesday.
When he was 15, a school psychologist recommended that he be removed from public school, as he had "only a tenuous grasp on reality" and was "unable [to] differentiate reality from fantasy decisively," the ruling notes, quoting the psychologist.
Stephens did not go back to school after 1982, and has been unable to hold down a job since. Over the years he held three "menial" jobs as a janitor, but was fired from each after just a short time. He has received Social Security benefits since 1995.
The Railroad Retirement Board had ruled, however, that the three jobs Stephens held showed that he had not been continuously disabled, no matter how menial and unsuccessful the positions were.
In disqualifying Stephens for benefits, the board also found that medical records failed to prove a diagnosis prior to age 22.
But a divided panel of appellate judges said that the board had interpreted its own regulations too strictly, and had ignored 9th Circuit precedent as well as the "context" of Stephens' work history.
"The regulations focus on the amount of earnings that would presumptively, but not conclusively, establish gainful activity when the claimant received them," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the majority. "The case law therefore requires the board to consider not only the amount an applicant has earned, but also the context in which those earnings were received. The board did not do so here. It ignored our precedent holding that temporary, unsuccessful attempts at employment do not foreclose a disability claim."
"The medical evidence provides no support for the board's denial," she added. "There is no medical evidence showing that Stephens is able to work. Stephens's treating physician states that Stephens's mental disabilities prevent him from working. His education and work history demonstrate this has been the case ever since he was a teenager."
Judge Milan Smith argued in dissent that the majority had substituted "sympathy" for the deference that the board deserves.
"I would hold that Stephens cannot prevail because substantial evidence supports the RRB's conclusions that Stephens did not establish a continuous disability either before or after age 22," he wrote. "The Railroad Retirement Act may be remedial and seek to promote humanitarian aims, but we are bound by the text of the statute and its implementing regulations. The majority errs in reversing the RRB simply because some evidence, including his testimony, suggests that Stephens was disabled. In a case such as this, the agency is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Sympathy for Stephens should not trump the deference to which the RRB is entitled under the law."