ALLORD v. ASTRUE (January 13, 2001)
Gary Smith served as a Marine in Vietnam. He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He applied for disability benefits in October of 1996. He asserted that he suffered from the disability since his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1987. Since he was last eligible for Social Security benefits in December of 1992, he had to show that he was disabled at that time. He is entering his fifteenth year of trying to do just that. A local agency denied his claim, an ALJ denied his claim, the agency stipulated on review to a remand for consideration of additional evidence, a different ALJ denied his claim, a district court affirmed the denial, the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded to the Agency, a third ALJ denied his claim, and a district court has reversed and remanded. Judge Crabb (W.D. Ill.) identified two errors in the last ALJ decision. First, he failed to follow the directions from the Seventh Circuit in assessing a witness's credibility. Second, he did not adequately explain his reasons for discounting a treating physician's opinion and adopting the opinion of another. Nevertheless, the district court declined Smith's request to remand with instructions to award benefits. Smith appeals.
In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Kanne, Williams, and Tinder affirmed. The only issue on appeal is whether the record below requires a finding that Smith was disabled in December 1992. The Court first noted that it would apply an abuse of discretion standard rather than the de novo review typically applied in a Social Security benefits case. That is because it is the claimant appealing the district court's refusal to remand for the award of benefits. The Court found no abuse of discretion. First, although Smith is correct that the ALJ erred in not adequately describing why he discounted the treating physician's testimony, the record does not support the conclusion that he could not do so. In fact, the district court itself noted that contradictory inferences could be drawn from the testimony and Smith does not challenge that reasoning. Second, the Court rejected Smith's argument that the agency’s "obduracy" is sufficient reason to award benefits. The record must provide the reason to award benefits. Third, the Court rejected Smith's argument that a remand would be futile. He expressed confidence that the agency would not continue to ignore its directions and those of the district court.