New Jersey Court on "Objective Medical Evidence" in Social Security Disability Cases

May 26,2009
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In discussing the law associated with Social Security disability benefits on this blog, we often refer to evidence: medical records, court documents, witness testimony and all of the other things that a disability claimant can present to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in attempting to prove his or her claim. In a recent case discussing objective evidence, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey explains that all of this is well and good, but a claimant must present “objective medical evidence” in order to prove that he or she is eligible for benefits.
The SSA denied the Plaintiff’s disability benefits claim, in which she asserted that she’s unable to work due to multiple disc herniations, fibromyalgia, depression and a left shoulder injury. Following a hearing an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Plaintiff is not disabled for benefits purposes because her alleged mental impairment is not supported by evidence and she retains the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of sedentary work.
One of the first steps in reviewing a disability claim is to determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. In affirming the ALJ’s decision, the District Court stated that “the claimant bears the burden of establishing that she suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Furthermore, “[a]n impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit a claimant’s physical or mental capacity to perform basic work activities.” Severity, according to the court, must be proven with objective medical evidence. Subjective complaints of pain and other symptoms is not sufficient.
In this case, Plaintiff failed to provide objective medical evidence supporting her claim that she suffers from a severe mental impairment. While Plaintiff provided treatment records showing that she complained of difficulty sleeping and anxiety-related symptoms, “there is no record of any diagnosis relating to her mental health,” the court noted. In fact, she failed to present any evidence of mental health treatment, despite testifying that she had received such treatment.
The court also affirmed the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff’s testimony regarding the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her impairments was not credible because it was inconsistent with the record. Specifically, the ALJ “pointed to the largely stable clinical findings in the record” as well as the lack of objective medical evidence to the contrary. As a result, the court concluded that the ALJ’s decision denying disability benefits to Plaintiff was supported by substantial evidence.

While we cannot know exactly what happened in this case, as a matter of practice, an experienced Social Security disability attorney can provide invaluable assistance to a claimant by gathering the necessary objective medical evidence and presenting it in a clear and concise manner. Without this evidence a case cannot be successful and should never be taken to Federal Court without objective evidence to support a claimant’s complaints.
The disability lawyer can also point out and explain any inconsistencies in the record, rather than expecting the SSA or an ALJ to sift through the evidence. A local attorney familiar with the SSA staff and judges who review claims in a particular geographical area are often well equipped to present a claim in the most compelling manner because the attorney knows what these people look for in their review. In the event that the SSA nevertheless finds that the client is not disabled, the lawyer can also pursue the matter in federal court, assuming there are significant errors of law.
Unfortunately, there are some cases in which evidence simply cannot be obtained, either due to a lack of treatment or, less often, because the treating sources do not provide it when requested.Again, it is difficult to say what happened here, but if there really was no objective evidence to support the claim, there would be no point in taking it all the way to Federal Court.
However, the vast majority of cases DO have the evidence to support the claim, and it is up to the attorney to obtain and present that evidence in the way that will result in a favorable determination.