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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
  • he should avoid jobs that require him to climb ladders, ropes & scaffolds
  • he can occasionally bend, stoop, crouch and crawl
  • he can lift 10 lbs. frequently and 20 lbs. occasionally
  • he should not use his left, non-dominant arm for pushing and pulling
  • he should avoid dusty environments and extreme heat and cold

Based on these limitations, can our hypothetical person return to the claimant’s past work?  If not, are there other jobs in the regional or national economy that he can do.

Vocational witnesses will refer to a statistical guide called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to identify jobs that the hypothetical person could do.  Jobs in the economy are classified as:

  • sedentary
  • light
  • medium
  • heavy
  • very heavy

Jobs are also

  • unskilled
  • semi-skilled
  • skilled

Generally the more limitations contained in the hypothetical question fewer jobs will remain.  Your goal, as the claimant, is to convince the judge to accept enough significant limitations in your capacity to work that the vocational witness will answer “I can identify no jobs that a person with those limitations could perform.”

In case you are interested, the sample hypothetical question noted above would eliminate a significant number of jobs but I don’t think it would eliminate all jobs.  A person with these limitations could perform simple, entry-level, sit down jobs with a sit/stand option.  Examples of simple, entry-level jobs include:

  • hand wrapper
  • garment sorter
  • textile inspector
  • surveillance system monitor

How would we make this a winning case?  That will be the subject of my next blog post.

5 thoughts on “Why Do Social Security Judges Call Vocational Expert Witnesses to Testify at Social Security Hearings?”

  1. This is the process to verify and they are following but now they should change it,

  2. I would like your response to “How would we make this a winning case. As a sidebar,
    why don’t defense use a vocational witness to rebutt the plaintif’s witness. In the years I have done expert testimony, I never had a defense lawyer use these services. Thank you for this interesting topic

    Rich Smith, MS, CRC

    1. Rich, the most efficient way to make this a winning case would be to obtain a functional capacity evaluation form from a treating doctor that includes limitations which would preclude competitive work. For example if the form states that the claimant would experience excessive absences from work and that limitation made it into the hypothetical, the VE would testify “no jobs.”

  3. please answer me
    my lawyer brought to the judge my treating doctor mentle functional capacity evaluation two forms includes limitions that I can not work becuase of my mentle issues with manic deppression, anger out burst , PDSD, byploer disorder the expert said no jobs as well then the the judge wants more updated medical records because she had last years medical notes and she wanted updates and that I was still being treated my lawyer send in the the medical notes early to the judge and a long note on how I should get benfits please can you tell me what you would think please about this.

  4. Had my hearing this week. 51, 11th grade, maint & construction and laborer….! neck, back, other issues & depression..The only job vocational expert could come up with was a “marker”..?
    hearing went fast with all no’s to work except this…my rep. did not question expert, and after said i did very well….! not sure what to think.? does any job ve comes up with means you lose…? help !

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