What role does the vocational expert play in my Social Security disability hearing?

January 3, 2022 in

Often, people who are applying for Social Security disability benefits who attend a hearing with an Administrate Law Judge express that the most confusing part of the hearing is understanding the testimony of the vocational expert. To better understand the role of the vocational expert in a hearing, it helps to have an understanding of Social Security’s disability evaluation process.

Social Security Disability insurance benefits are available to those who have worked and paid taxes on their income and are unable to continue normal work activities due to a medical condition that has lasted or is expected to last for at least six months or result in death. The first step to obtaining benefits is to submit an initial application. If the initial application is denied, the next step is to submit a reconsideration appealing the initial decision. If the reconsideration is denied, the next step is to request a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge.

At the administrative hearing, you will testify by answering questions about your work history and your medical conditions, including your abilities to perform activities such as sitting, standing, walking, and lifting or carrying weight if your medical conditions are physical in nature. You will also testify regarding your ability to complete your activities of daily living such as bathing and dressing, taking care of household chores, driving, and grocery shopping.

The vocational expert then testifies at the next part of the hearing. A vocational expert is a vocational professional who is hired by the Social Security Administration to provide impartial expert opinion testimony about a person’s vocational abilities. The vocational expert is required to have up-to-date knowledge of, as well as current experience with, industrial and occupational trends. He or she is also required to have knowledge of vocational counseling and job placement of adults with disabilities into jobs.

The Judge will ask the vocational expert to classify your past work. The vocational expert will review the work history report which you have previously submitted, which should outline your job duties including the heaviest amount that you were required to lift or carry, whether you supervised other people, whether you used any special machines or tools, and how many hours of the day you spent sitting and standing. This is also information that you will provide when testifying about your work history at the hearing. The vocational expert will be asked by the Judge to classify your “past relevant work.” This is work that you have done within the past fifteen years at substantial gainful activity levels which you performed long enough to learn. The vocational expert will refer to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which is a source of occupational information provided by the Department of Labor. The Dictionary of Occupational Titles provides information about jobs in the national economy and lists the skill level and exertional level of each job. The Dictionary of Occupational Titles provides a reference number for each listed job, known as the DOT number. The vocational expert will provide the DOT number for each job that you have previously performed when he or she testifies at the hearing.

After the vocational expert provides testimony regarding your past work, the Administrative Law Judge will describe hypothetical individuals with certain limitations and abilities. These can be physical limitations, such as being able to stand and sit a certain number of hours in an 8-hour workday, lift and carry various amounts of weight at varying frequencies; or mental limitations, such as limitations in abilities to interact with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. The vocational expert will testify whether the hypothetical person could return to his or her past work. If the person is not able to return to past work, the vocational expert will then advise if there are any jobs which this hypothetical individual can perform that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. If the vocational expert finds jobs that exist, he or she will provide information regarding these jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, as well as the number of these jobs that exist in the national economy. The Judge may provide several different hypotheticals to the vocational expert with varying limitations. The vocational expert may also be asked to testify regarding the acceptable number of times per month that a person can be absent from work, as well as the acceptable amount of time that a person is permitted to be “off task” in the workplace. This testimony can be very important when you are receiving ongoing treatment for a condition that would cause excessive absences from work, such as infusion treatments or physical therapy. The vocational expert can also provide testimony regarding the transferability of job skills. Transferability of skills is a factor that comes into play when the person was age 50 or older on the date of the disability.

Hiring an attorney to represent you at the hearing phase is crucial for your success. Your attorney will be able to question the vocational expert and propose her own hypotheticals after the judge has finished questioning the vocational expert. An experienced Social Security Disability attorney is familiar with the resources with which a vocational expert consults when providing his or her testimony. Your attorney will accordingly be able to question the vocational expert regarding any damaging testimony that he or she provides. Although you are not required to have representation at your hearing, you are entitled to have a representative present if you choose to have one. Your chances of succeeding at your hearing improve when you retain an attorney to represent you. Social Security’s regulations surrounding disability are complex and not necessarily intuitive. It is best to hire an attorney who understands how to win your case within the framework of these rules.

The Social Security Disability attorneys at LaBovick Law Group are passionate about fighting to win for our clients at all stages, including during the hearing phase. Give our team a call at (561) 625-8400 for a free case evaluation.