Errors on Credibility and Weight of Evidence Warrant Remand

Errors on Credibility and Weight of Evidence Warrant Remand 

September 15, 2009

Author: Catherine M. Callery (Kate)| Louise M. Tarantino

In a recent decision remanding a claim for further proceedings, District Court Judge Charles Siragusa of the Western District of New York reiterated several rulings that are important to our disability cases.  In Griffith v. Astrue, 2009 WL 9096630 (W.D.N.Y. March 31, 2009), Judge Siragusa addressed the weight to be given treating physician evidence, the weight to be given non-examining reviewers’ opinions, and how credibility determinations should be conducted.

In this case involving a musculoskeletal disorder, Judge Siragusa found that the ALJ failed to properly apply the treating physician rule when he gave the treating doctor’s opinion little weight because it was based on the plaintiff’s subjective complaints. Citing Green-Younger v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2003), the Court held that subjective complaints are an essential diagnostic tool and do not undercut the validity of a treating source’s opinion.  The Court also cited Green-Younger for the finding that “the State Agency Officials’ reports, which are conclusory, stale, and based on an incomplete medical record, are not substantial evidence.”

Lastly, Judge Siragusa found that the ALJ’s credibility determination was erroneous since “he appears to have strained to find inconsistencies in plaintiff’s testimony.” The ALJ also erred by drawing a negative inference from the fact that the plaintiff did not have surgery for her back problems.  The Court found that the ALJ should have clarified if surgery was in fact recommended, and if there were good reasons for declining surgery, citing Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-7p.

Although the plaintiff requested that any remand proceedings be assigned to a different ALJ, Judge Siragusa did not grant that request and sent the case back to SSA for assignment to the same ALJ.  On remand, however, the same ALJ granted a fully favorable decision on the record.  So we won the battle and the war.

This case was handled by Kate Callery and Louise Tarantino from the Empire Justice Center.