September 26, 2016

Functional Capacity Evaluations: Helpful or Hurtful?

Social Security FCEHere is a question I received from a blog reader:

I have been told I should qualify for disability because of my permanent restrictions set by my FCE. I was put in a light category. What do you think?

Here is my response:

First, let’s clarify what a functional capacity evaluation is and why it is important to Social Security.  Functional capacity evaluations (abbreviated FCE) are a set of tests and evalautions designed to objectively determine your capacity to perform the physical demands of work 1.  A physical FCE will categorize you as:

  • able to perform heavy work
  • able to perform medium work
  • able to perform light work
  • able to perform sedentary work
  • unable to perform sedentary work

Social Security has defined each of these terms – click here for the definitions.

An FCE can be preformed by a rehabilitation supplier, a physical therapist or a physician.  A formal FCE may involve one or two days of testing along with interpretation by a trained health care provider.  An informal FCE may involve a checklist form completed by your doctor.

Social Security judges will accept both formal and informal FCEs.  Other judges, such as those presiding in a workers’ compensation case or in state court litigation may give little or no weight to an informal “checklist” FCE completed by a doctor. 2

FCEs are important in a Social Security claim because SSA defines disability in terms of your capacity to work.

Generally, if an FCE evaluation determines that your capacity to work is “less than the full range of sedentary work” you would be considered disabled by Social Security.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Social Security has published something called the grid rules 3 If you are over the age of 50, with a high school or less education and an unskilled or low skilled work background there are some instances where you will be considered disabled by Social Security even if you can perform sedentary or light work 4

So, to answer my reader’s question: if she is age 50 or younger, or if she is over age 50 but is educated or has more than entry-level work skills, a light rating in an FCE most likely will not result in a finding of disability.  She would need some other mental or physical issue in addition to the light rating.

If my reader is over age 50, she might qualify for disability under the grid rules if she is limited to light work.

My experience has been that formal FCEs are often requested and paid for by insurance companies and thus are frequently not helpful to you.  I have had a great deal of success with informal “checklist” FCEs that I put together on behalf of my clients.

  1. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of an FCE
  2. Social Security judges will also accept informal checklist mental FCEs.
  3. The technical name for the grid rules is the Medical-Vocational Guidelines.  You can read about the grid rules here.
  4. The grid rules represent Social Security’s understanding that unskilled, less educated workers will have a great deal of difficulty actually finding entry-level work.  Click here to learn more about how the grid rules work.
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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.


  1. Thank you for your response Iam not yet 50 Iam 47 but only have high school education. Have my back issues from surgery my fce was done by physical therapist. Who is the one that told me I scored low which put me in the light catorgory. I also have some arthritis as a result of back injury. And neuropathy according to emg done by neurologist. And bad acid reflux. Not sure if any of those things matter to disability social security.

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