Overcoming Credibility Determinations/Minor Claimants

Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”) have the authority to decide how credible a piece of evidence is, and what weight to give it when making determinations on issues presented. In Chaussingand v. ICAO, Claimant appealed both the ALJ’s determination that Claimant had not sustained a compensable injury and the subsequent denial of benefits. The ALJ’s decisions were based on credibility determinations made regarding evidence submitted by Claimant, the employer, and medical professionals. The Court of Appeals explains in its decision, affirming the ALJ, that reviewing courts are prohibited from setting aside credibility determinations made by an ALJ, unless it is found there is hard, certain evidence to the contrary.

In Chaussignand, Claimant began working with his employer when he was fourteen years old, in 2017, as a farm laborer. In July 2017, Claimant had been clearing branches with two coworkers, loading, and unloading the branches onto a truck for transportation and disposal. Claimant claimed that while unloading branches, he “felt some pops” throughout his back. That same day, Claimant alerted a supervisor and filled out an injury report. Claimant was diagnosed with sprains of the lumbar and thoracic ligaments. Claimant then filed a claim for benefits. At hearing, there were various discrepancies between Claimant’s and other witnesses’ testimonies. Specifically, Claimant exaggerated his work responsibilities on the day of the alleged injury and failed to mention prior medical visits for back pain caused by competitive skiing in both 2016 and 2017. For those reasons, the ALJ found there was not sufficient credible proof that the injury was work-related or compensable. This decision was affirmed by the Industrial Claims Appeals Office (“Panel”). Claimant then appealed to the Court of Appeals (“the Court”) and alleged that the ALJ erred in making credibility determinations regarding Claimant’s evidence and asserted that Claimant’s young age should have been considered.

The Court explained ALJs have great discretion in determining the facts and deciding ultimate medical issues considering evidence submitted to prove a compensable injury. After making such determinations, a reviewing body must uphold the ALJ’s factual findings, so long as the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Here, the Claimant asked the Court to reach findings contrary to the ALJ’s conclusions. The Court found that due to Claimant’s contradictory testimony, evidence supported the ALJ’s finding that the Claimant was not credible. Additionally, Claimant did not point to any “hard, certain evidence” in the record which would contradict the ALJ’s credibility determinations.

The Court also found that there was no reason to treat the Claimant, nor his testimony, any differently due to his age at the time of injury or hearings. This was because Claimant did not offer any authority in support of his contention, and Claimant was represented by counsel at the hearing. The Court explained that by having counsel, Claimant’s interests were protected. An attorney who represents a child must represent the children’s interests alone – not simply parrot the child’s expressed wishes. For those reasons, the Court found that the ALJ had not erred in making credibility determinations regarding Claimant’s evidence, nor had the ALJ erred in not taking Claimant’s young age into account.  Substantial evidence supported the judge’s findings and legal conclusions. Therefore, the Court affirmed that Claimant did not suffer a compensable injury and affirmed the ALJ and the Panel’s denial of benefits.

Chaussignand v. ICAO, Unpublished (19CA0651, July 23, 2020)

Want to know more? Contact Eric Pollart at epollart@pollartmiller.com or 877-259-5693.

August 2020 Newsletter