The goal of an administrative law judge is to determine whether or not an applicant who is appealing a denial of his or her Social Security Disability claim is actually entitled to the benefits that he or she is trying to get. As a part of this process, the administrative law judge must determine if there is any type of work that this applicant could perform in the national economy. While administrative law judges may be well versed in Social Security Disability laws, these judges are not always familiar with the abilities that are necessary to perform a job or what jobs may be available to certain disability applicants. This is where a vocational expert witness comes into play.
A vocational expert witness testifies at a disability hearing to help the administrative law judge determine whether or not the applicant is actually able to work. While the applicant may not be able to perform the same type of work that he or she has performed in the past, there may (or may not) be other types of work they can participate in. It is the job of the vocational expert to determine whether or not there are jobs available that the applicant can perform.
When a vocational witness testifies at a disability hearing he or she will refer to a guide called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The jobs listed in this dictionary are classified as sedentary jobs, light jobs, medium jobs, heavy jobs, very heavy jobs, unskilled jobs, semi-skilled jobs and skilled jobs. The limitations that an individual’s disability places on them will impact the types of jobs that he or she may be able to perform. In general, the more limitations a disability poses, the fewer jobs that person will be able to complete and the vocational expert may determine that the applicant cannot find work in the national economy due to the limitations the individual suffers as a result of his or her disability.
In most cases, during the hearing, the judge will pose hypothetical questions to the vocation expert witness. These questions might be something like, “If there was a person who was the same age as the applicant with the same work history and same educational background, what jobs would he or she is limited to?” The jobs that are named by the expert could then be addressed according to the disability. For example, if the vocational expert states that light office work could be performed, but the disability applicant suffers from a condition such as bi-polar disorder that would interfere with the ability to perform such work, then it is likely that the individual would be granted disability benefits because he or she is suffering from a disability that prevents them from performing the jobs that they might qualify for.
On the other hand, if the vocational expert lists jobs that an applicant’s disability would not interfere with, it is likely that the applicant would be denied disability benefits. This is why it is important that the ALJ understands all of the limitations your disability places on you when you attend a disability hearing and why you should have a lawyer representing your interests when the hearing is being conducted.