You have received notice of your hearing date from the SSA. You are going through all the paperwork when you come across a piece of correspondence indicating that a vocational expert (VE) witness will be present at your hearing. ‘What is a vocational expert witness?,’ you may wonder. In case you have never heard of the VE, you have come to the right place. Below find everything you need to know about the vocational expert witness.
What is a vocational expert?
In September 1962, the vocational expert program was established. Since then, vocational experts have testified in approximately 25,000 disability cases at the appellate level. In a disability hearing, the expertise of a vocational expert is customarily used and is the result of an Administrative Law Judge’s request. In fact, vocational experts (VEs) appear more in disability hearings than medical experts (MEs). Vocational experts are professionals with vocational expertise who evaluate residual functional capacity ratings to ascertain if there are jobs in the national economy that a disability applicant can do. In essence, vocational experts testify about work abilities. A vocational expert is not an agent of the Social Security Administration. As an independent party, vocational experts are to remain completely objective and impartial in expressing their opinions.
What is the role of the vocational expert?
Incorporating their knowledge and experience, vocational experts are able to provide an overview of the types of work a claimant has performed over time. In most cases, vocational experts review fifteen years of an individual’s work history.
Why is a vocational expert needed to testify?
Most often, the Administrative Law Judge solicits the testimony of a vocational expert because he/she has questions that need to be answered and feels that the claimant’s testimony alone will not be sufficient to provide the answers needed. Having a vocational expert testify should not be inferred as being good or bad. Again, a vocational expert’s presence and testimony often indicates the personal preference of the ALJ. While some judges rarely request the appearance of a vocational expert, some do regardless of how clear-cut and simple a case may be.
How is ‘work’ defined? Are there different levels of ‘work’?
Yes, the types of work are broken down into four categories. They are as follows:
Heavy work – having the ability to lift or carry one hundred pounds occasionally and fifty pounds frequently, and to stand and walk six to eight hours per day.
Medium work – having the ability to lift or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently, and to stand or walk six to eight hours per day.
Light work – having the ability to lift or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and to stand or walk six to eight hours per day; or,
Sedentary work – having the ability to lift no more than ten pounds at a time and occasionally lift or carry small articles. Sedentary work usually refers to work that is done while sitting. The claimant must also have the ability to sit up to two hours out of an eight-hour day to be able to perform sedentary work.
In considering the above descriptions, it is important for the disability applicant to understand the meanings and usage of the words ‘occasionally’ and ‘frequently.’ Occasionally is the ability to lift or carry less than one-third of the time in an eight-hour period. Frequently is an individual’s ability to perform at the same level at least one-third of the time in an eight-hour day.
What types of training and qualifications are required of a Vocational Expert?
Different from medical experts, which are an additional source of experts available to aid Administrative Law Judges in rendering decisions, the training and qualifications of a vocational expert are varied. While some vocational experts may have a background in psychology, others may have experience in vocational education, counseling or rehabilitation.
Is the disability claimant privileged to communications between the Administrative Law Judge and Vocational Expert?
Yes, claimants and their attorney are both able and should receive a copy of any written correspondence between the vocational expert and the Administrative Law Judge assigned to the applicant’s case.
Are vocational experts subject to cross-examination?
Any witness who is called by an opposing side and presents testimony is subject to cross-examination. This process affords the disability attorney to ask new questions or to seek clarification on answers already interjected. Vocational experts are no exception to the cross-examination rule. Since a vocational expert has proffered an opinion as to an applicant’s job capabilities, he/she is subject to cross-examination.
Is there any way to know whether a Vocational Expert will be present at my hearing?
A couple of weeks prior to a hearing, your attorney and/or representative should receive a witness notice. The witness notice will list all individuals the Administrative Law Judge has requested testify in your matter. If your attorney has not received a witness list, your attorney should call the ALJ’s office and ask about experts. A word of caution, claimants should never personally contact any expert witness.
When do vocational experts normally testify during the hearing?
The vocational expert can obtain information primarily in three different ways. First, information is gathered when reviewing the claimant’s file prior to hearing. Second, the vocational expert obtains additional information through the oral testimony of the claimant as well as other individuals who testify during the proceedings. The third avenue and probably one of the most important means in which a vocational expert accumulates information is through observing the disability applicant during the hearing. Observation may yield clues regarding appearance, responsiveness, general intelligence, communication skills, and other claimant characteristics. It is during this time that vocational experts will note any physical capacities, such as the use of limbs or prostheses, or physical endurance. As a result, the vocational expert is usually the last to testify.
Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 29 years, Jonathan publishes a widely known disability blog, a podcast and several disability web sites. In 2004, Jonathan published a "how to" book about Social Security disability called the Disability Answer Guide. Jonathan lives with his wife and 2 children in Atlanta.
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