"Social Security Matters: Major Depression and Disability," by Gabriel Hermann and Lewis Insler can now be found in the most recent edition of Mental Health News online by clicking here.
February 2012 Archives
New York Court: Social Security Judge Not Required to Consult a Vocational Expert - Colon v. Commissioner of Social Security
In reviewing a Social Security disability benefits claim, a Social Security Administration (SSA) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) often considers the opinions of a variety of individuals, including treating and consulting doctors, people familiar with a claimant's daily activities and vocational professionals, referred to in the claims process as vocational experts (VEs). In Colon v. Commissioner of Social Security, the District Court for the Northern District of New York considers whether there are certain cases in which the ALJ must consult a VE.
Plaintiff Karissa Colon filed a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits, asserting that she's unable to work due to anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal problems and severe back pain. She worked as a cashier, customer service representative, bill collector and sales associate before filing the claim, which the SSA ultimately denied. Following a hearing before an ALJ, it was determined that Plaintiff is not disabled because she retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with no more than three step instructions and limited public contact.
On appeal, the district court granted the SSA's motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the court rejected Plaintiff's assertion that the ALJ erred by failing to consult a VE before deciding on the claim.
A VE is a vocation rehabilitation professional that provides advice to an ALJ regarding a disability benefits claimant's ability to perform any type of work activity, despite his or her physical or mental impairments. Specifically, the VE's role is to gauge both the claimant's ability to work in jobs that he or she has performed over the last 15 years as well as the claimant's residual capacity, or ability to work any other jobs that are available in the national economy. A VE is not required to be present at every administrative hearing; an ALJ can obtain a VE's opinion by requesting that the VE either testify at hearing or provide answers to written interrogatories.
In reaching its decision, the court ruled that an ALJ may (but is not required to) consult a VE in considering a claimant's ability to work where the claimant suffers from a "non-exertional" (i.e. non-physical) impairment that significantly diminishes the claimant's ability to perform a full range of exertional work. In this case, according to the court, "Plaintiff's greatest non-exertional complaint throughout the record was that she couldn't work with people." In turn, the ALJ found that this did not limit the range of exertional work that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, decided not to consult a VE. As a result, the court determined that the ALJ applied the correct legal standard in reviewing Plaintiff's disability benefits claim.
Our elected officials in Washington, D.C. recently held the second in a series of hearings aimed at strengthening the Social Security disability system, this one focused on increasing accuracy in determining who is and who is not eligible for benefits.
"For every one tenth of one percent Social Security improves its payment accuracy, it can pay disability benefits for a full year to close to 5,300 people," said Sam Johnson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security. "That's real money for those who can't work and who count on these benefits to keep a roof over their head and food on the table."
Titled "Securing the Future of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Program," the hearings are intended to consider the "current and future financing challenges" of the Social Security Disability Insurance benefits program, under which the federal government generally provides benefits to persons who are unable to work for a year or more due to a physical or mental impairment. Last year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) paid $130 billion in disability benefits.
As the federal deficit has soared in recent years, however, Social Security (as well as other programs like Medicare and Medicaid) has come under fire from lawmakers looking to cut costs. According to Johnson, disability program costs have soared from $18 billion to $124 billion over the last 40 years as the number of those receiving benefits has more than tripled from 2.7 to 9.7 million. The Social Security Board of Trustees recently announced that it expects that the combined assets funding the Social Security retirement and disability benefits programs - the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds - will run out of money by 2036.
Some politicians have called on the government to raise the minimum age for individuals to be eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits, while others say the entire system should be scrapped in favor of private investment accounts. For his part, Johnson says that the government can cut the costs associated with the Social Security disability program by simply improving the accuracy of the disability claim process. "The best way to protect the disability program is to prevent fraud before it occurs," he said in an opening statement before the Jan. 24 hearing.