The central question in a Social Security Disability case is whether the person seeking benefits can still work, despite any physical or mental impairments. That includes both a consideration of any limits on the claimant's ability to work imposed by the impairments, and the types of jobs the claimant can perform, given those limits and his or her education, background and experience. This decision often involves input from a vocational expert (VE), a vocational professional engaged by the SSA to provide an opinion as to whether a person with the same background and impairments as the claimant's can still work.
In Quiros v. Astrue, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida explains that in certain circumstances, it's not just a good idea for the Social Security Administration (SSA) and its judges to consult a VE, it's a requirement.
The SSA denied Plaintiff Odemaris Quiros' disability benefits claim, in which Quiros claimed she was unable to work due to anxiety and panic attacks, osteoarthritis and hypertension. Plaintiff then appeared before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at an administrative hearing. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled for benefits purposes because she retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to do medium work in a supervised, low stress environment and with certain physical limitations, including a number of jobs available in the national economy.
On appeal, the Court found that the ALJ should have consulted a vocational expert in reaching the decision on Plaintiff's ability to work.
"There are two avenues by which the ALJ may determine whether the Plaintiff has the ability to adjust to work in the national economy: either by using the Medical Vocational Guidelines ("grids") or by testimony from a vocational expert," the Court explained. The grids draw on a claimant's physical limitations, age, education and experience to determine the types of jobs the person can perform. The ALJ may not rely solely on the grids, however, where the claimant is either not able to perform a full range of work at a certain level or where the person is affected by "non-exertional" impairments that significantly limit his or her work skills, such as a mental impairment. Under such circumstances, the judge may consult the grids, but must also consider independent evidence, such as VE testimony.
Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform medium work, but with a variety of additional non-exertional limitations which the ALJ concluded had more than a minimal effect on her ability to work. As a result, the Court reversed the ALJ's ruling and remanded the claim to the ALJ for further proceedings, ruling that that the judge should have consulted a VE rather than make an independent determination on the plaintiff's employability in light of her non-exertional impairments.
An experienced Social Security Disability lawyer is vital to a claimant in an ALJ hearing, particularly one in which a VE testifies. The disability attorney can present information to the ALJ in a way that will shape the hypothetical questions that the ALJ poses to the VE and cross-examine the VE to ensure that his or her opinion is both professionally sound and based on an accurate hypothetical. The lawyer can also ask his own questions of the VE if those asked by the ALJ do not accurately reflect the claimant's limitations and restrictions and the record as a whole.
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