The Fourth Circuit revisits today, July 11, the contentious issue of the degree of objective scientific evidence required to corroborate a Social Security applicant’s claim of pain-related disability. Today’s opinion is Hines v. Barnhart.

Hines is a railroad conductor who suffers from sickle cell disease. That condition produces significant and debilitating episodes of pain, but the pain is usually not susceptible of being objectively corroborated. An administrative law judge denied Hines’ request for a determination of job disability because he could not prove that the pain existed; today, the Fourth Circuit reverses and awards benefits without remanding the case to the district court.

As today’s opinion notes, the court and the Social Security Administration have visited this battleground before. The court specifically rejected the SSA’s requirement of objective corroboration in 1994, but the Administration, in an action that the court hints was defiant, “continued to require objective clinical evidence of the existence and intensity of a claimant’s pain” thereafter. A class action suit followed, in which the court reaffirmed its previous holding; the SSA was ultimately required to promulgate a policy statement, for distribution to all administrative law judges in the geographic extent of the Fourth Circuit, setting forth the court’s holdings on this point.

While this ruling applies only to Social Security disability claims, the reasoning could apply with equal force to, say, ordinary personal injury claims with pain symptoms that may have no objective corroboration. It is also worth noting that this case arose in North Carolina, not Virginia, so the persuasive power of the ruling may be lessened significantly for Virginia practitioners in other contexts.