Administrative Law Judges for the Social Security Administration are tasked with determining the credibility of claimants who come before them seeking disability benefits. In other words, they are responsible for deciding if a claimant is lying or exaggerating their symptoms in order to get disability benefits.
In a recent case in Vermont, an Administrative Law Judge found that because the claimant, who had COPD, had failed to follow her doctor’s order to stop smoking, she was not credible and he dismissed her claim. The Court reversed the Decision however, finding that the regulations only direct denying a claim when a claimant is non-compliant with doctor’s orders that would restore the ability to work.
The Court also noted the addictive nature of nicotine, and that the failure to quit smoking may be influenced by factors other than the effect of smoking on an individual’s health. The Judge in this case had also ignored the claimant’s efforts to stop smoking, notably that she had reduced the number of cigarettes she smoked per day.
Based on the Vermont court’s decision, it is clear that an Administrative Law Judge must consider the effect a particular doctor’s order would have on returning the claimant to work before denying the claim based on non-compliance. While this decision does not require that a claimant follow all doctor’s suggestions (i.e., a claimant is not required to have surgery simply because it is presented as a treatment option), it is instructive that any claimant should be prepared to explain any degree of non-compliance with doctor’s instructions, particularly if compliance could restore the claimant’s ability to work.