Interpreting and Weighing Claimant Testimony in a Social Security Disability Hearing - Muniz v. Astrue

March 17,2009
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We’ve mentioned in previous posts that a Social Security Administration (SSA) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) considering a disability claim is often called upon to weigh the credibility of various parties, including the claimant. In Muniz v. Astrue, the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio joins a growing line of federal courts whose ruling are to remind an ALJ that if the judge discredits all or part of a claimant’s testimony, he or she must provide adequate reasoning for doing so.
Plaintiff Jose Muniz, a 56-year-old with a tenth grade education who previously worked as brick layer and cement finisher, filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, asserting that he’s unable to work due physical impairments resulting from diabetes, mellitus, cataracts, hypertension and an affective disorder. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied the claim.
Plaintiff then appeared before an SSA ALJ at an administrative hearing. According to the court, Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing that “[h]e does not stand since he became sick (due to diabetes) and, if he stands in place a lot, he has to rub his leg from time to time.” He also stated that he cannot hear out of his right ear and can only see shadows out of his left eye. Although Plaintiff could not return to his previous work, the ALJ found that he was nevertheless able to perform “a limited range of medium work” and, therefore, was not disabled because he could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. The SSA’s Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request that it review the ALJ’s decision.
On appeal, the District Court overturned the ALJ’s decision, finding that it was not supported by substantial evidence. The court noted that an ALJ’s decisions is “not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” In this case, however, the court ruled that the ALJ both mischaracterized Plaintiff’s hearing testimony and failed to explain why he discredited portions of the testimony concerning Plaintiff’s physical limitations.
SSA regulations state that, in order to be capable of performing medium work, a person must be able to frequently (“from one-third to two-thirds of the time”) lift or carry objects of up to 25 lbs. in weight. While the ALJ interpreted Plaintiff’s testimony as indicating that he can lift 20 lbs. frequently, the court found that this interpretation was not supported by the record. Rather, Plaintiff “unequivocally testified that he thought maybe he could lift twenty pounds for one or two hours, but not six (the amount of time required to qualify as “frequent”) because he could not walk for that long,” according to the court.

The ALJ was free to reject this testimony, but was required to provide sufficient reasoning to support such a decision. Here, the ALJ provided no reason for rejecting Plaintiff’s testimony and in fact appeared to rule that the decision was consistent with the testimony. As a result, the Court vacated the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Claimant testimony often plays an important role in proving a disability benefits claim at an administrative hearing because the claimant can explain to the judge how his or her impairment(s) inhibit the claimant’s daily activities. An experienced Social Security disability lawyer can assist a claimant by preparing the claimant to testify and gathering medical records and other evidence consistent with the claimant’s testimony.