Individuals who have been twice denied disability benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) during the initial phases of the application process may request an appeals hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
During an appeals hearing, claimants are asked to answer questions about their health condition, as well as about their past employment history, acquired skills, and experience. In a majority of disability cases, the ALJ requests the presence of a vocational expert at the hearing.
What is a Vocational Expert?
It is the job of a vocational expert (VE) to have considerable knowledge of the skills required for various occupations, current job trends, professional earning capacity, and labor market conditions. Typically, a VE will have experience with job placement and vocational counseling.
A vocational expert will review the evidence of a claimant’s case prior to the appeals hearing. The VE will be prepared to answer questions presented to them by the ALJ or, in some occasions, by the claimant’s attorney. Typically, a VE testifies in person, although sometimes it is via video teleconferencing (VTC) or by phone. On occasion, a VE will be asked to provide written answers to questions during the interrogatory process.
It is the role of a VE to provide an impartial expert opinion to the ALJ based on the claimant’s skill level, physical and mental demands of various job occupations, and the transferability of specific occupational skills.
The VE will identify your job in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). All jobs are assigned a DOT code. If you have performed several jobs in the past 15 years, all of your DOT codes will be listed by the VE.
While the VE is knowledgeable about your work history, he or she has no information about your medical history. As such, a VE will not provide an assessment as to how you personally might be limited by your disability.
Vocational experts are trained to be impartial, meaning they have no stake in whether or not your disability claim is approved or denied. They are merely there to help an ALJ determine whether or not a claimant can do their job or if their acquired skills are transferable to another line of work.
Will the Vocational Expert Ask Me Questions at the Hearing?
A Vocational Expert rarely speaks directly with the claimant. If he or she has questions about your case or require clarification, they will often address those questions the ALJ.
At an appeals hearing, the ALJ will often pose a series of hypothetical questions to the VE about a fictional situation for a person with certain limitations. The ALJ will ask the VE whether or not someone with your specific condition could perform his or her most recent job.
For example, an ALJ might ask, “Assume that a 48-year-old, high-school educated individual has worked as a data-entry clerk for the last 15 years. This individual is limited to unskilled sedentary work, is able to stand for short periods of time, but requires frequent changes in position. She is unable to lift more than 10 pounds. Is this individual able to perform their past relevant work?”
If the VE testifies that you can perform your old job, you will be most likely be denied disability benefits. If the VE states that you are unable to do your old job, the ALJ will ask if someone with your skills and condition could adapt to any other jobs. At this point the VE might offer several jobs that the claimant could perform given their condition and skills.
Is It Important that I have a Disability Lawyer Present During My Appeals Hearing?
After the ALJ questions the Vocational Expert your disability attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the VE. Your lawyer will try to rule out any jobs that the VE said that you could do by offering additional information to the VE. At this point, it becomes your attorney’s job to try to get the VE to say that there are no jobs that you can reliably perform.
Disability claims are won and lost on VE testimony. If you do not have a lawyer present, you may not have the skills or ability to challenge the VE’s opinion, should it need to be challenged. Having an experienced Social Security lawyer by your side could mean the difference between a disability award or a denial during an appeals hearing.