Why is there a witness you have never seen before at your Social Security disability hearing?
In Atlanta area hearing offices, most disability judges will call a vocational expert to testify at your hearing. This may seem odd since you have never met or spoken to this witness, yet this vocational expert’s testimony will have a significant impact on your case.
The vocational witness is there to help the judge better understand how your medical problems might impact your capacity for work. Remember that Social Security defines disability in terms of whether your medical problems prevent you from working a simple, entry-level job, so the judge needs help better understanding the minimum requirements for work. Vocational experts are only allowed to testify if they have experience placing injured workers at jobs, and knowledge about hiring practices generally.
The same vocational witnesses appear in hearings at the Atlanta area hearing offices – downtown Atlanta, north Atlanta, Covington, Gainesville, Athens and elsewhere throughout north Georgia. These experts are part of a panel and I see them again and again.
Vocational experts are not there to help you or hurt you – they answer a range of questions asked by the judge. If the answer hurts your case that is because the judge included very moderate limitations in his questions; if the VE’s answer helps your case that is because the judge included severe limitations.
Here is an example of the type of question your judge might ask the vocational expert: “assume we have an individual who is the same age as our claimant, with the same education and work experience. Assume further this hypothetical person is limited to light work (can stand/walk 6 hours in a day and can lift 10 lbs. frequently and 20 lbs. occasionally). Assume further the following additional limitations:
- this individual should avoid hazardous equipment and unprotected heights
- this individual should only occasionally be required to climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds
- this individual may frequently kneel, stoop, crouch and crawl
- due to pain this individual is limited to simple one or two step jobs
Could this hypothetical person return to the claimant’s past work or any other work?
The judge then might ask a second question:
Mr. Vocational Witness, assume all the limitations set out in question #1 but add the following:
- because of pain and discomfort, this individual would be off task 20% of the workday.
Would that allow for past work or any other work? (the answer to this would be “no”)
As you can see, the hypothetical questions asked by a Social Security disability judge can be very granular, which is why an expert is needed.
Since we know that the judge will include work limitations in his/her question to the VE, it is important that your testimony include specific limitations. This is why I tell my clients to avoid general statements like “I can’t lift very much” or “I can’t sit very long.” How can a VE testify about jobs you might be able to perform if you can’t “sit very long?”
Instead, we want to practice answer that include specifics like “I can sit for no more than 10 minutes before my low back becomes very tight and I need to stand and walk around for 5 to 7 minutes. I can repeat this cycle for about an hour then I have to lie down for 45 minutes. I can sit in an office type of chair for about 90 minutes a day.” A vocational witness can use this level of detail to testify about the availability of jobs in the national economy that would allow this level of accommodation.