The Vocational Analysis Administrative Law Judges Undertake at Hearing

There is a common misconception among many Social Security disability claimants that disability benefits are payable if they remain unable to perform the work that they’ve undertaken for years.  We hear this from skilled professionals who suffer from severe mental health problems and, as a result, believe they remain unable to return to the stress and strain associated with the requirements of their prior profession. Likewise, we hear this from those who have worked more labor intensive positions, such as in construction or, for example, as auto mechanics.   We are many times facing the uncomfortable position of having to explain to a disabled individual that the Social Security disability program is not meant to provide benefits in a circumstance where they remain incapable of working the profession that has formerly paid them a comfortable salary: rather it is meant to provide compensation in a circumstance where they remain no longer capable of working at any job for which they are reasonably suited by age, education or experience and can earn a gainful wage, which in 2016 is defined as the ability to earn simply $1130 per month.   Having to explain the evaluation process the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) undergoes at hearing can be just as difficult.

When we undertake a hearing for our clients, whether it be in Massachusetts, Maine or New Hampshire, the ALJ presiding at hearing ordinarily schedules a vocational expert whose job it is to evaluate the claimant’s vocational background and to testify as to what jobs hypothetically exist in the claimant’s region and in other regions of the country.   If in fact one’s medical condition meets or is deemed to equal in severity that of a listed medical impairment contained in Social Security’s listing of impairments, then one would be deemed disabled at what is called Step 3 of Social Security’s sequential evaluation process and it never becomes necessary to go to steps 4 and 5 of the evaluation process.   However, assuming one does not meet or equal in severity one of Social Security’s listed impairments, the analysis turns to step 4, which is whether one remains capable of returning to one’s past relevant work (which is work performed in the 15 years prior to becoming disabled) and then, step 5, which is whether one remains capable of returning to any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

To undertake a determination as to whether suitable jobs would exist, based on the claimant’s past relevant work, age, education and functional limitations (both physical and mental), requires that the ALJ have the assistance of a qualified vocational expert.   What most don’t understand is that the Social Security regulations regarding the ALJ’s duties (20 C.F.R. §404.1566) provides that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy if it is deemed to exist in either one’s own region or in several other regions of the country.  The regulation specifically provides that it does not matter if there is such work in your immediate area, if a specific job vacancy actually exists for you or whether you would actually be hired for the position.  The evaluation process is a very scientific one that only takes into account your residual functional capacity and then, based on an analysis of your past education, work experience and skills whether such jobs hypothetically exist.   When claimants are informed that it doesn’t matter whether you are able to get that particular job, whether the job is in your area or the fact that the economy in one’s own particular area is poor (which may be as a result of living in a rural or isolated area), this does not tend to go over well.  This is especially the case when the vocational expert testifies to the availability of positions that are jobs one’s never heard of before.  The regulation goes on to state that the ALJ must deny the claimant if your residual functional capacity and vocational abilities make it possible to do such work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy even regardless of: ” 1) your inability to get work; 2) lack of work in your local area; 3) the hiring practices of employers; 4) technological changes in the industry in which you have worked; 5) cyclical economic conditions; 6) no job openings for you; 7) you would not be actually hired to do work you could otherwise do; or 8) you do not wish to do a particular type of work. ”

Thus, understanding up front how an ALJ will need to undertake an analysis of your case is instructive up front as to whether an individual should be considering an application in the first place.  By undertaking such analysis with the benefit of a skilled Social Security lawyer, you can determine whether moving forward with a claim makes sense in your particular set of circumstances.  If you or a loved one is suffering from a severe medical condition that is keeping them from working, call the Law Offices of Russell J. Goldsmith at 1-800-773-8622 to see how we can assist you.