Assessing Credibility in Social Security Disability Hearings

John M. FitzGerald

 

Social Security Regulations require claimants to prove they are disabled as a "result of anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. A physical or mental impairment must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by your statement of symptoms."

A symptom is an individual's own description of his or her physical or mental impairment. SSA regulations make it clear that "statements about your pain or other symptoms will not alone establish that you are disabled." So questions often arise as to how to prove disability in instances when subjective complaints such as pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, or nervousness prevent you from working, or when you can't afford to go the doctor, or pay for medicines.

Make no mistake, SSA is assessing your credibility at every stage of the process. Nearly every file contains the opinions of medical and administrative personnel as to whether a claimant's allegations are credible. But nowhere does that assessment become more apparent than at the hearing stage, when a judge has a chance to read the file and meet with the claimant face to face.

Adjudicators must consider whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms. Once that has been shown, the adjudicator must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms to determine the extent to which they limit ability to do basic work activities.

SSA acknowledges that objective medical evidence alone cannot always prove or disprove an individual's symptoms exist at the level of severity alleged. So adjudicators are required to "make every reasonable effort to obtain available information that could shed light on the credibility of the individual's statements."

In general, SSA defines "credibility" as "the extent to which an individual's statements about symptoms can be relied upon as probative evidence in determining whether the individual is disabled."

In evaluating credibility, the adjudicator must consider the entire case record and give specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's statements. The assessment cannot be based on an intangible or intuitive notion. It must be grounded in evidence and articulated in the decision.

Allegations concerning the intensity and persistence of pain or other symptoms may not be disregarded solely because they are not substantiated by objective medical evidence.

Consistency of a claimant's statements with later statements, and with statements and observations of others all come into play. Medical treatment history must be considered.

But what if you can't afford to go to the doctor, or pay for prescriptions?

SSR 96-7p provides insight, stating that an adjudicator "must not draw any inferences about an individual's symptoms and their functional effects from a failure to seek or pursue regular medical treatment without first considering any explanations that the individual may provide, or other information in the case record, that may explain infrequent or irregular medical visits or failure to seek medical treatment. The adjudicator may need to recontact the individual or question the individual at the administrative proceeding in order to determine whether there are good reasons the individual does not seek medical treatment or does not pursue treatment in a consistent manner. The explanations provided by the individual may provide insight into the individual's credibility. For example:

The Seventh Circuit, in a recent case, held that the judge must not draw any inferences about a claimant's condition from failure to follow a treatment plan or infrequent treatment unless the judge has explored the claimant's explanations as to the lack of medical care. The Court cites inability to afford treatment a one reason that can provide insight into the individual's credibility.' So a judge must question a claimant about lack of treatment or noncompliance, and failure to do so may be grounds for appeal.

The lesson for claimants, then, is to make sure these facts get into their records. Tell your doctor if you cannot afford the medications prescribed to you, or if you do not have insurance and cannot seek treatment as often as you need to. In the end, the key to credibility is consistency, but where the facts are inconsistent, some reasonable explanation needs to be offered.