6th Cir Adopts 'Harmless Error' in Disability Benefits Appeals - U.S. Sixth Circuit
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6th Cir Adopts 'Harmless Error' in Disability Benefits Appeals

Not sure how to proceed in a Social Security disability benefits appeal when an administrative law judge (ALJ) makes a factual -- though possibly harmless -- error?

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals announced Friday that harmless error analysis applies to credibility determinations in the Social Security disability context.

Lynn Ulman applied for disability benefits, claiming that she suffered from physical limitations that prevented her from performing her past work (e.g., park ranger, home health care aide, and waitress). An ALJ reviewed Ulman's claim and concluded that she could perform other jobs (e.g., cashier, parking lot attendant, ticket taker) that existed in the national economy. But on his way to that analysis, the ALJ made a factual error.

Ulman filed her claim for benefits on March 7, 2006. The first medical problem that she encountered occurred on Dec. 3, 2001, when she fell backwards off a ladder. She alleged in her application that her disability began on June 28, 2002.

To be eligible for benefits, her disability must have begun on or before the 2002 date, and continued until she filed her application for benefits.

The 2001 incident is significant because the ALJ confused the date when the report was printed for the administrative record (2006) with the date of the incident (2001). That led the ALJ to make an adverse credibility determination with respect to her reports of disabling pain:

Records show she was actually climbing a ladder in 2006 wherein [sic] she fell about 7 to 8 feet backwards and had neck pain with pain down her left shoulder and arm all the way to the knee. The fact that she was climbing a ladder is not consistent with being disabled prior to December 2003 and brings her credibility into question.

The question before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals: Does the ALJ's adverse credibility finding require remand because it was based in part on a factual misreading of the record?

Here, the Sixth Circuit found a Ninth Circuit decision, Carmickle v. Commissioner of Social Security, "instructive."

In Carmickle, the Ninth Circuit concluded, "So long as there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusions on credibility and the error does not negate the validity of the ALJ's ultimate credibility conclusion, such is deemed harmless and does not warrant reversal."

Here, the harmless error analysis prompted the Sixth Circuit to affirm the decision.

With the exception of Ulman's fall from the ladder, the ALJ's decision carefully parsed all of the medical records and accorded them fair weight. Those records supported a finding of no disability. Even a doctor who examined Ulman stated that she could return to work with the very restrictions adopted by the ALJ in his hypothetical to the vocational expert. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision.

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