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Friday, February 20, 2015

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides one Indiana case today, a reversal

In Daniel Hall v. Carolyn Colvin, SSA (SD Ind., Magnus-Stinson), a 6-page opinion, Judge Posner writes:

This is an appeal by an applicant for social security disability benefits named Daniel Hall, who was turned down by the Social Security Administration seconded by the district court. An aviation mechanic discharged in 2001 by the military (we are not told which branch) because of pain from an ankle injury, he was deemed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to be 70 per cent disabled and, more important, to be “unemployable” in “a substantially gainful occupation” and therefore totally disabled. 38 C.F.R. § 4.16. In 2010 he applied for social security disability benefits on the ground that pain from his ankle injury, together with back and knee pain and other ailments, had steadily worsened and by 2009 had rendered him totally disabled under the standards of the Social Security Act. * * *

The administrative law judge’s most serious error, one we’ve noted in previous cases (see next paragraph), is her belief that complaints of pain, to be credible, must be confirmed by diagnostic tests. Even if that were true, she should have known of the limitations of x-rays as tools for diagnosing pain and, knowing that, should have ordered an MRI before issuing her decision, because his two earlier MRIs had, he testified, preceded the onset of his total disability.

It is understandable that administrative law judges want diagnostic confirmation of claims of pain. Without such confirmation the administrative law judge has to determine the applicant’s credibility, and it is often very difficult to determine whether a witness is telling the truth—especially when as in this case he has an incentive to exaggerate. But as numerous cases (and the Social Security Administration’s own regulation) make clear, an administrative law judge may not deny benefits on the sole ground that there is no diagnostic evidence of pain but only the applicant’s or some other witness’s say so: “an individual’s statements about the intensity and persistence of pain or other symptoms or about the effect the symptoms have on his or her ability to work may not be disregarded solely because they are not substantiated by objective medical evidence.” SSR 96–7p(4); see, e.g., Pierce v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 1046, 1049–50 (7th Cir. 2014); Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 753 (7th Cir. 2004).

Several doctors noted that Hall had been in pain when examined, and this was some corroboration of his testimony. The administrative law judge could have resolved her doubts by ordering an MRI or directing a further examination by a medical expert. Her failure to do either leaves her determination that Hall is not disabled without a foundation in substantial evidence. Her failure to analyze and weigh the Veteran Administration’s determination that the applicant is totally disabled was a further oversight.

The denial of disability benefits cannot be sustained. The decision of the district court is reversed with directions to remand the case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with the analysis in this opinion. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 20, 2015 01:21 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions