The Role of the Vocational Expert at the Administrative Hearing, Part I

Should it become necessary to proceed to a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Social Security disability claimants will typically see from their notice of hearing that a Vocational Expert has been called to testify at hearing.  Understanding the role of the Vocational Expert (VE) at hearing goes hand in hand with understanding the hearing process generally and the process that the ALJ will go through in coming to a decision in their case. 

The Social Security Sequential Evaluation process requires that an ALJ determine: step 1) is the claimant undertaking gainful wages (in which case a denial will issue, and if not, the ALJ will proceed to step 2),  step 2) does the claimant suffer from a medically determinable impairment which is severe (assuming not, a denial will issue, and assuming the claimant does, the ALJ will proceed to step 3),  step 3) do any of the medically determinable impairments meet or equal in severity any of Social Security’s listing of impairments (assuming yes, a finding of “disabled” will issue, assuming no, the ALJ will proceed to step 4),  step 4) is the claimant capable of  performing any of his past relevant work, which is the work undertaken during the 15 years prior to his alleged onset date (assuming the claimant remains capable of performing any of their past relevant work, a finding of “not disabled” will follow, assuming no, the ALJ will proceed to step 5) and step 5) is the claimant capable of performing any job which he is reasonably suited by age, education and experience which jobs exist in significant numbers in either the claimant’s local region or other regions of the national economy.   That being said, the VE’s role is to assist the ALJ in addressing steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process: assuming the ALJ is able to determine that the claimant does meet or equal a medical listing of impairment, the testimony of a VE becomes unnecessary.  If the claimant is determined to meet or “equal in severity” a medical listing of impairment, they are in fact assumed to be incapable of performing substantial gainful activity and a finding of disabled takes place without having to consider either the vocational background of the claimant, their residual functional capacity and the extent to which their medical conditions and vocational background cause them to  remain capable of undertaking gainful employment. However, assuming a claimant’s medical condition is found not to meet or equal a medical listing of impairment, the case at hearing will require a vocational analysis under steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process and this will ordinarily require that the ALJ request the presence of a qualified VE to attend and testify at hearing.

In the next part of our blog series on the vocational expert, we’ll delve into the specific role the vocational expert plays at hearing with respect to their testimony, how they prepare for hearing and ultimately testify at hearing, and the manner in which both the attorney and the presiding ALJ might inquire of the VE during the hearing process.  If you or someone you love is facing the prospects of having to go to a Social Security disability hearing on their own, suggest they call an experienced lawyer who has more than 26 years handling such cases before  Administrative Law Judges out of Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Attorney Russell Goldsmith, at 1-800-773-8622.