On February 20, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an order further clarifying how Social Security’s Administrative Law Judges must consider subjective complaints of pain.

Objective Evidence of Chronic Pain Often Scant

Many SSDI applicants suffer from chronic pain which renders them unable to work. In such cases, the applicant and his or her attorney must decide how to present these symptoms of pain to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Unfortunately, there is no definitive diagnostic test to rate the intensity or persistence of pain. Instead, the applicant’s only “evidence” is their subjective complaints of pain and any diagnostic tests, such as MRIs and X-Rays, which may give credence to their complaints. Worse yet, many chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, do not reveal themselves on an MRI or other imaging.

Lack of “Objective Medical Evidence” Cannot Be Sole Basis for Denial

Judge Posner recently addressed this issue in Hall v. Colvin, asking a Social Security Disability ALJ to reconsider a prior application denial after finding the ALJ improperly ignored the impact of pain on the applicant’s ability to work. The applicant had previously been found “unemployable” by the Department of Veterans Affairs due to knee, back, and ankle pain, obesity, and fibromyalgia. At the hearing level, the ALJ did not find the applicant’s complaints of pain credible primarily because diagnostic tests provided only limited support for his complaints of pain. Judge Posner rebukes the ALJ, stating her “most serious error…is her belief that complaints of pain, to be credible, must be confirmed by diagnostic tests.” He goes on to reaffirm prior Seventh Circuit case law holding that “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.”

SSDI Attorneys Know How to Present A Strong Subjective Case

Of course, to prove the limitations caused by chronic pain, in the absence of diagnostic testing, the applicant will need support from other sources. This is where a skilled attorney can assist. Obtaining the opinions of your treating doctors can provide vital support for complaints of pain. Beyond this, a skilled advocate will understand how symptoms of pain impact an individual’s ability to perform work and can use this knowledge to ask appropriate questions of the vocational expert at hearing.

While the absence of a definitive way to prove the existence of chronic pain presents a challenge for the social security applicant, proving pain is by no means impossible. If you would like to discuss your claim for SSDI benefits please call one of our Madison Social Security attorneys at (608) 257-0040.

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David Zoeller