In Social Security disability cases, medical evidence – doctor’s opinions, treatment records, objective clinical studies etc. – is the key to winning a claim. That is, a clear and accurate record showing that the claimant suffers from an impairment or combination of impairments affecting his or her ability to work makes it more likely that a claim will ultimately be approved. In Troy v. Commissioner of Social Security, however, the District Court for the District of New Jersey explains that medical evidence is not the only thing that a Social Security judge must consider in reaching a decision on a disability benefits claim.
Plaintiff Candace Troy received Social Security disability benefits from 1976 to 1981. In 2007, she filed a claim for retroactive benefits related to a disability period that began in 1991. Plaintiff asserted that she’s been unable to work since that time as a result of depression and personality disorder.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied the claim and Plaintiff later appeared before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at an administrative hearing. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled for benefits purposes because the claim was based on “spotty and general notes” from Plaintiff’s doctors that were not sufficient to show that she suffered from a severe impairment.
On appeal, the District Court reversed the ALJ’s decision, finding that he failed to consider all of the evidence Plaintiff provided, including Plaintiff’s own testimony. In concluding whether a benefits claimant suffers from a severe impairment, the court explained
the ALJ must take into account all of the evidence, including Plaintiff’s symptoms, to determine whether the functionally limiting effects of [claimant’s] impairments have an effect on their ability to perform basic work activities.
According to the court, the ALJ must specifically consider Plaintiff’s testimony regarding her symptoms and compare it to objective medical evidence. In so doing, the ALJ must make findings that are sufficiently clear to allow a subsequent reviewer to determine the weight afforded to the Plaintiff’s testimony.
In this case, the court found “there is no indication of whether he considered Plaintiff’s testimony.” That is, the ALJ’s opinion appeared to be based solely on medical evidence, which the ALJ determined to be insufficient to establish disability. This could have impacted the outcome of the case because the ALJ specifically noted Plaintiff’s “spotty” treatment record without acknowledging that Plaintiff testified that she obtained treatment whenever she could financially afford to do so.
The Court held that “without mentioning a weighing or the weight of the credibility attributable to Plaintiff’s testimony, this Court must find that [the ALJ] breached his duty to sufficiently analyze or explain his analysis of Plaintiff’s case.” Under either circumstance, the court noted that the case must be remanded for the ALJ to consider Plaintiff’s testimony or explain what weight that testimony was given.
An experienced Social Security disability attorney can help a client navigate the complex disability claims process, filing the claim on the client’s behalf, and presenting it in the most compelling and convincing manner, utilizing both medical evidence and claimant testimony. The disability lawyer can also represent the client at an administrative hearing or in a federal appeal, if necessary.