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Disabled man in wheelchair, Tampa Disability Attorneys

The Role of the Vocational Expert at Your Tampa Social Security Disability Hearing

If you file a claim for Social Security disability benefits, it is quite common to be denied at the initial and reconsideration stages, thereby making you wait for an administrative law hearing.

One of the most important persons you will encounter at the administrative hearing will be a vocational expert (VE).  The purpose of a VE is to provide expert evidence as to whether a claimant can perform his past relevant work, and perform any jobs in significant numbers in the national economy.

Many claimants are bewildered about this part of the hearing.  If the VE states the claimant can do a job, the claimant might say that no one would hire them.  However, you should understand that the Social Security Administration does not have a legal burden to show that you could find one of these jobs stated by the VE and actually be hired.

The Sequential Evaluation Process and the Vocational Expert

The Social Security Administration follows a five-step sequential evaluation process when determining whether you are eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

At step four, a vocational expert (VE) is used to provide evidence concerning whether you could do your past relevant work.  The VE will consider the limitations caused by your medical impairments, such as your ability to stand, walk, sit, lift and carry objects, interact with other people, use appropriate judgment, and follow instructions.

This summary of your physical and mental limitations is called your residual functional capacity, or RFC.  If your RFC is more limiting than your past relevant work, the vocational expert will say that you no longer able to perform your previous work.  For example, perhaps you have been diagnosed with moderate depression.  Your RFC has a limitation preventing you from regularly interacting with the public due to symptoms of depression.  As such, the VE would state that you should be unable to perform your past relevant work as a waitress because the requirement to frequently be around the public would conflict with your RFC.  If there are no previous jobs that you can perform, then the evaluation process moves to step five.

At step five, the vocational expert will testify whether you could perform jobs in significant numbers in the national economy considering the limitations in your RFC.  The interesting part is that your RFC will not be decided upon even at the hearing stage. Therefore, the administrative law judge and your attorney might propose several different RFCs to the vocational expert.  It could be legal error for the ALJ not to ask the VE hypothetical questions about the jobs you could perform based on the limitations contained in a doctor’s opinion.

If there are no jobs that you can perform at step five, then you would be found disabled.  The best case scenario is when the administrative law judge poses only one hypothetical question to the VE regarding your RFC limitations, the VE states there are no jobs available, and the judge asks no further questions.  In this instance, the judge put herself into a corner because by asking no further questions of the VE, she has no evidence showing that you could perform any jobs.

The vocational expert should be relying upon the Dictionary of Occupational Titles which is published by the Department of Labor.  If there is a conflict between the VE’s testimony and the information given in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, then the VE should explain how this conflict was resolved, and what other evidence supports the VE’s conclusions.  If the VE does not adequately explain any conflict in his testimony, it could be the basis for reversible error.

The Vocational Expert Versus the Administrative Law Judge

At a disability hearing, there are major differences between a vocational expert and the administrative law judge.  The administrative law judge has the power to decide whether you can receive Social Security disability benefits.  However, a VE does not have the power to decide whether you can receive benefits.  Instead, the VE provides testimony about whether a hypothetical claimant can perform different jobs given the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC).  The administrative law judge can decide to accept or reject the VE’s testimony.

The VE also cannot decide whether any medical evidence or medical opinions should be given full weight in your case.  The VE simply answers that if the medical evidence is accepted as true, then these are the jobs that the claimant could hypothetically perform.  An experienced Social Security disability attorney will understand what questions will need to be asked of a VE so that a complete record is made for your case.  If your case is denied after a Tampa Social Security disability hearing, you could still appeal before the Appeals Council or further at the federal district court level.  Your case could get remanded for a new hearing, the appeal could be denied, or you could be awarded disability benefits.