September 20, 2014

How Does a Social Security Judge Decide if I have “Transferable Skills” for Grid Rule Purposes?

transferable skillsThis is a good question – the short answer is that judges will look to vocational expert witness testimony to determine whether a claimant has acquired transferable skills.

Your question got me thinking that it might be helpful to review how the grid rules work and to take my readers through a grid rule analysis, so, here you go:

The grid rules, or “medical vocational guidelines” can qualify you for Social Security disability benefits even if you have some capacity to work, but you are not likely to find work because of limited skills and a limited education.

In order to qualify for a finding of disability under the grid rules you must have exertional limitations. This means that your medical issues must impact your physical capacity. Thus, a person asserting disability based on depression, or bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia could never qualify under the grid rules 1

You can look at the grid rules here.

The grid rules look at several factors: your age, your education, the skill level of your past work and whether or not your past work generated any transferrable skills. SSA lays out these factors in a table divided by grid lines – thus the name.

When a judge applies the grid rules he first must make a decision about your capacity for work. If you are limited to sedentary work, you are more likely to be found disabled under the grid rules than if you are limited to light or medium work.

Let’s analyze how the grid rules work in practice. [Read more...]

  1. Such a person could, however, qualify for disability based on a listing or using a functional capacity argument.

Can Vocational Witness Testimony Predict the Outcome of Your Hearing?

SSDI hearing decisionsOver the past couple of years, Social Security has changed its procedures to offer less information to claimants and their lawyers.  Staring in January, 2012, for example, SSA began deleting the name of the judge from hearing notices.  Thus, when I meet with my client to prepare for an upcoming hearing, I cannot speak to the likes and dislikes of a particular judge because I do not know who that judge will be.

It is my understanding that the purpose of this particular change was to prevent “judge shopping” whereby a lawyer might tell his client to move rather than appear at a hearing before a judge who rarely grants cases.  It seems to me that claimants and the entire disability adjudication system benefit more by having their lawyers better prepared than SSA benefits from rare instances of judge manipulation.

Another change I have noticed involves SSA directives discouraging judges from announcing their decisions.  In years past, judges would sometimes announce favorable decisions in cases where the evidence was clear.  Now, judges rarely announce their decisions directly even if all of the evidence and testimony points towards a favorable decision.

From my clients’ perspectives, of course, this mystery is extremely frustrating.  Imagine waiting 2 years to get a hearing, then to discover that it may be another 6 weeks before a decision is announced. [Read more...]

Why Do Social Security Judges Call Vocational Expert Witnesses to Testify at Social Security Hearings?

vocational expertIn most Social Security disability hearings, judges call on expert witnesses called “vocational experts” to help them evaluate your capacity for working.  As a general rule,  Social Security defines “disability” in terms of a claimant’s ability to perform the tasks of a simple, entry level job, therefore it makes sense that the judge will need to identify the specific activity limitations that arise from your medical and/or psychological problems and he will need a way to determine if these limitations impact your capacity for work.

Judges make this evaluation by posing “hypothetical questions” to the vocational expert witness.  A typical question may sound something like this:

Mr. Vocational Expert, I want you to assume the following about a hypothetical person who is the same age as our claimant, with the same educational background and the same work history.  This person is limited to light work with the following limitations:

  • he can sit for 45 minutes at a time, then needs to stand and stretch for up to 10 minutes
  • he can sit for a total of 2 hours during a day
  • he can stand for 6 out of 8 hours during a day but should have the ability to change position at will [Read more...]

These Questions Always Get Asked at Hearings

In my practice, I always try to schedule an in-office, in-person meeting with my client prior to his/her hearing.   Usually, I try to meet a week or two before the actual hearing date to discuss the hearing procedures and to practice answering the questions that are likely going to be asked.

I want my client to understand the hearing procedure so he can focus on what he needs to say.  The less uncertainty about the process – the better.

In Atlanta, which is my primary area of  practice, we have two live hearing offices and one video hearing location.   Between these hearing offices, there are around 20 judges that I see on a fairly regular basis and a few more that I see less frequently.  While every judge has his or her own style of conducting hearings, I have noticed one trend – judges seem to be relying more on me (the attorney) to ask the direct examination questions.   This may not be the case in every hearing office or every attorney, but this is what I am seeing.

In my view, having control of the questioning is a positive development because I can better prepare my client for his hearing.   I know what I will want to ask, and here are the areas of questioning that I cover.   In any case, whether I ask the questions or the judge asks the questions, there is certain information that every claimant should know and be able to discuss clearly and accurately – there is no reason to be surprised by any of this:

Personal background

  • state your full legal name and social security number
  • state your mailing address
  • how tall and you and how much do you weigh?
  • how far did you go in school and have you had any education or vocational training beyond high school?

Work background

  • are you now working?
  • have you tried to work since your onset date?
  • describe your unsuccessful work attempt(s) – who was the employer, what did you try to do, how long were you able to stay and why were you unable to remain on that job? [Read more...]

Vocational Expert FAQ: Everything you need to know about the VE

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.

Diabetes and Social Security Disability Case Study Posted

This afternoon, I tried an SSDI case involving a 53 year old woman claiming disability based on diabetes and associated complications.  In reviewing the record it appears to me that my client had been diabetic for several years prior to her diagnosis and has most likely suffered permanent vision and nerve damage.  Unfortunately her medical care has been suboptimal and while she has been compliant with treatment the record does not contain enough for me to make an argument based on the listing at 9.08.  Instead I went with a functional capacity argument.

You can read the case study on my Georgia Social Security disability web site.

Understanding How Social Security Classifies Your Past Work

warehouseworkerLike many federal bureaucracies, Social Security has developed its own language for describing many of the concepts that underlie a disability evaluation.  Since disability considers your capacity to work by looking at both your past work and about other jobs, a description of your past work is an important part of your case evaluation.   You should try to become familiar with some of these terms prior to your hearing.

At Social Security hearings, judges often call vocational witnesses to classify your past relevant work.   Generally Social Security is concerned with your past relevant work over the past 15 years.  Short durations jobs of less than 3 months are usually considered unsuccessful work attempts (UWA) and don’t count as past relevant work.

Vocational witnesses identify both the “exertional level” of your past relevant work as well as the “skill level” of that work.   Jobs are classified exertionally as:

  • sedentary
  • light
  • medium
  • heavy
  • very heavy

More explanation about what these exertional levels mean – page on this blog;  post from Colorado disability lawyer Tomasz Stasiuk

Jobs are classified by skill level as:

  • unskilled
  • semi-skilled
  • skilled

Vocational experts use a resource called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (D.O.T.) to classify the exertional and skill level of every job that (in theory) exists in the national economy of the United States.  You can read the D.O.T. online by clicking on the link. [Read more...]

Hearing Testimony Tip: Know How Much You Can Lift and How Far You Can Walk

In my law office, I always try to schedule a pre-hearing meeting with my client one to two weeks prior to my client’s hearing.  I use this meeting to discuss the “big picture” issues and to practice asking and answering questions that my client is likely to face.

One line of questioning that always comes up relates to my client’s capacity to perform various physical activities, such as lifting, sitting, standing and walking.  Physical activities like these are known as “exertional” activities by the Social Security Administration and one’s exertional capacity is almost always a factor in questions asked of the vocational witness.

For Social Security purposes, your exertional capacity is defined as follows:

Sedentary: Requires the ability to sit up to six hours in an eight hour work day, lift light objects such as files and paperwork frequently during the day, and objects weighing up to 10 pounds occasionally during the day.

Light: Requires the ability to stand up to six hours in an eight hour work day, lift up to 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally.

Medium: Requires the ability to stand up to six hours in an eight hour work day, lift up to 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally.

Heavy: Same standing as light and medium, lifting heavier than medium.

As you can see, each of these definitions includes some very specific numbers.  When you prepare to testify, you will need to be prepared to discuss your capacities. [Read more...]

Will I Win if the Judge Does Not Use a Vocational Witness or Medical Expert?

what are your chances of winning a case at a hearing when there is no voc rehab guy or medical specialist to assist the alj in a decision.
–Lamont

My response: Lamont, I think that yes you can win if the judge does not use a VE or an ME.   Here is how I would analyze:

First, what is the custom in your hearing office?  In Atlanta, where I practice, all but one or two judges regularly use vocational expert witnesses.  There are a couple of judges who almost never use them.   If a judge who always uses a VE hears a case without VE testimony, it most likely means that the issue is fairly clear cut one way or the other.

In the Atlanta hearing offices, judges rarely use medical experts – in my practice I would estimate that ME’s appear about 15% of the time.  The absence of an ME would be of less concern to me here in Atlanta. [Read more...]

How do Vocational Witnesses Prepare for Your Hearing?

One of the least intuitive elements of a Social Security hearing is the vocational witness testimony.  Social Security judges frequently request the presence of vocational witnesses (also known as “VE’s”), independent experts who appear at your hearing to classify your past work and to answer hypothetical questions from the judge about work you might be able to do, given the limitations set out in the hypothetical question.

Vocational experts serve as the bridge between the medical evidence in your case and the work limitations would allow a judge to conclude that there is no work you can perform.

I have written before that I do not consider vocational witnesses as enemies.  They do not make up the hypothetical questions, they just answer them.  As such, I disagree with some disability lawyers who aggressively cross examine vocational witnesses to challenge their credentials or the factual basis of their assertions.  In most cases, the vocational witnesses that appear are part of a panel of experts, and both the judge and the attorney know how the VE will answer a question.  I would resort to an aggressive cross examination if the VE presents testimony that is inconsistent with what I know to be accurate.

One of my readers emailed me a question about VE’s that I have not previously addressed, and I would like to answer it here.  Her question:

What constitutes the vocational evidence reviewed by the VE before the hearing?

In fact, vocational witnesses do prepare for hearings – here is what they do:

  1. they familiarize themselves with your work history.  Your original application as well as several of the other forms your fill out as part of your application contains a job history.  The VE will use this history to identify the types of jobs you have performed during the 15 year period prior to allegedly becoming disabled
  2. they review the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (the “DOT”).  Social Security currently relies on a book called the DOT to characterize jobs.  The DOT contains thousands of jobs, each classified by exertional level – sedentary, light, medium, heavy or very heavy – and by skill level – unskilled, semi-skilled, or skilled.  In preparation for your hearing the VE will classify your past work and identify any transferable skills that arise from any semi-skilled or skilled work you may have done
  3. they anticipate questions from the judge.  VE’s are not lawyers and they don’t, or shouldn’t, have any interest in the outcome of your case.  However, experienced VE’s have been present for hundreds or even thousands of hearings and they generally have an idea about what questions may arise.  In most cases, the bottom line question comes down to whether a claimant can reliably perform a simple, unskilled, sedentary job that is not production based and does not require any significant interaction with co-workers or supervisors.  Every VE has his own list of “the easiest jobs that exist” and ones that I hear often are jobs like “surveillance system monitor,”  “hand packer,” “foil wrapper,” or “textile inspector.”

I am going to be appearing with a VE from the Atlanta area panel and I’ll ask him to elaborate on this answer and I’ll update as appropriate.