How to Increase Your Credibility in a Social Security Disability Case

Getting the claims examiner or judge to believe your complaints and limitations is half the battle of winning Social Security disability benefits.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
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Your credibility will be a crucial part of your Social Security disability case, unless you have severely disabling impairments that are meticulously documented by MRIs, x-rays, and physicians' notes. For many applicants, proving the severity of their limitations relies at least partly on their own complaints of pain and other symptoms. For this reason, it's essential that the DDS claims examiner who evaluates your initial application and the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who conducts your hearing find your allegations believable, especially if you suffer from fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, depression, or any other impairment that does not lend itself to objective testing.

Social Security regulations require the ALJ at your hearing to make a determination as to your credibility and to provide specific reasons for that finding. Here are a few ways to increase your credibility with SSA and improve your chances of winning your disability case.

Use a Strong Work History to Your Advantage

If you have a consistent record of employment throughout your adult life, don't hesitate to emphasize that fact to the ALJ at your hearing. Your Social Security file will contain your earnings history and employers, but only for the last 15 years, so if you've worked longer, be sure to point it out. If you enjoyed working and wish that you could return to your previous jobs, you might mention that as well.

A strong work history tends to show the ALJ that you're not engaged in "benefit-seeking," or trying to take advantage of the system. You want the ALJ to know that you would work if you possibly could.

Obtain Reports From Third Parties

While a third party report, such as a letter from a family member, can lend credibility to your case, not all third party reports are created equal. Generally, a written statement of a former co-worker or supervisor will carry more weight than someone with a financial interest in your case, such as a family member.

Whether the report comes from a co-worker, friend, or family member, it should focus on the individual's first-hand experiences with you. A former boss might indicate, for example, that you were unable to lift the amount required at your job, or that you frequently showed up late, took unscheduled breaks, or missed days. If you suffer from severe anxiety, a family member might state that he rarely sees you leave your house. These statements can help corroborate your own reports of your symptoms and your limitations.

Third party statements that discuss your medical issues or contain an opinion as to whether you're "disabled" are of virtually no use to SSA.

Indicate Whether You Have "Good Days and Bad Days"

Many people with disabling impairments, both mental and physical, say that they have "good days and bad days." If this applies to you, make sure that you state it on both your initial application for benefits and at your hearing.

Why is this so important? Because it often prevents SSA from finding that your allegations regarding pain or other symptoms are inconsistent with your daily activities. For example, say that you suffer from fibromyalgia and chronic migraines, but for one or two days per week you are relatively pain-free. On those "good days," you can perform household chores, go shopping, and do some yard work. The rest of the week, you're virtually immobilized with intense pain and unable to carry out your activities of daily living.

If you tell SSA that you're able to do the dishes, shop for groceries, and work in the yard, the claims examiner or ALJ will likely find that if you can do those things, you can probably work as well. But if you state that you can only accomplish these activities on "good days," and that you have only one good day per week, your testimony is no longer inconsistent.

Document Your Pain

By its very nature, pain is highly individualized and subjective. The same diagnosis of "moderate spinal stenosis," for example, can cause severe, debilitating pain in one person and virtually no limitations in another. SSA's regulations recognize this fact by noting that pain and other symptoms are often more severe than what is shown by the objective medical evidence alone. SSA will consider your pain to the extent it is consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, including your own statements and those from third parties and physicians.

In other words, SSA won't take your allegation of pain at face value; it must be documented to the extent possible. There are several options for this, listed in order of importance:

  • Physician's clinic notes. Be sure to tell your doctor about the location, intensity, frequency, and duration of your pain at each visit. If your physician doesn't take note of your pain, SSA will assume everything is fine.
  • Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form. Ask your doctor to complete an RFC form, one that includes a question as to the nature and extent of your pain and how it would impact you over a normal workday.
  • Keep a pain diary. Record the details of your pain in a daily journal. Include the severity of your pain (0-10 scale), the location of your pain, any possible causes, and the nature and effects of any treatment. Most pain management facilities will be able to provide you with a pain diary to fill out.
  • Obtain statements from third parties. As discussed above, ask a friend or family member to write down what kinds of functional limitations they observe and submit this statement to Social Security before your hearing.

Finally, remember that you'll probably have to sit for an hour or more at your disability hearing. If extended sitting causes you discomfort, don't just grit your teeth in pain while sitting through your hearing! Tell the judge that you're in pain, and ask to stand up and walk around. Your body language can say more to the ALJ than any of your answers to his questions.

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