The process of applying for Social Security Disability is complex. The most straightforward way to win an award for your disabling illness is to meet the listing criteria of a particular condition in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Blue Book. However, many individuals do not meet a Blue Book listing, despite being severely disabled.
These individuals will need to demonstrate to the SSA the effects that their illness or injury has on their ability to work. A residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment will detail the various limitations that you might have as a result of your condition. In other words, the RFC will demonstrate how much you can do and for how long you are able to do it, given your current health status.
For example, if you are suffering from chronic back pain, your doctor may have told you that you should not lift more than 10 pounds and that you should not bend, push, or pull. You may also have been prescribed medications for your pain that make you tired and unsafe to operate machinery.
If you work as a mechanic, your functional limitations might make it such that you are unable to perform your job duties. Also, your non-exertional activities such as your ability to follow directions or keep pace may be impacted by your narcotic needs. An RFC would outline these limitations, making it clear to the SSA your remaining capacity to work since your injury.
Will the Social Security Administration Complete an RFC for Me?
Your Social Security Disability claims examiner will work with a disability consultant at the Disability Determination Service (DDS) to perform your RFC. The residual functional capacity assessment is not a physical exam, and you will not need to actively participate. Instead, the medical consultant will utilize your medical records, including any physician notes, to determine what functional abilities remain and what physical and mental restrictions are present.
Once your RFC is complete, it will be used to determine what type of work that you can still perform, ranging from sedentary work to very heavy work. Only those individuals who have been given a rating of medium work or less will be considered for disability awards.
Can My Doctor Help Complete My RFC Assessment?
It’s highly likely that your treating physician knows your capabilities and limitations. If he or she has done a good job of documenting your physical and mental limitations in your medical record, they will carry a significant amount of weight in your RFC.
However, what the SSA does not tell applicants is that you can request that your doctor complete the RFC for you. While some physicians may be unwilling to do so, many others have assisted their patients with this task. Having your own physician complete an RFC on your behalf will enhance your chances of being granted a disability award.
Why You Should Complete a RFC Form
A residual functional capacity form or RFC form is one way that a claims judge can make a decision about whether you are able to work and what your limitations are. The form is particularly useful if your disability does not match any of the listings in the SSA’s Blue Book, or your medical condition does not match the criteria in the Blue Book necessary to allow you to be given SSD benefit payments.
You can arrange for your own physician to complete a RFC on your behalf. Your physician, assuming that he or she has a good understanding of your medical history and the onset and development of your particular disability, is the best person to complete a RFC.
However, even if you have not arranged a RFC yourself, this may be completed by a claims adjustor working for the Disability Determination Services (DDS) in consultation with a medical consultant. The RFC gives a better picture of your functional limitations and what you are able to do and not do physically and mentally.
Your physical capacity for work is determined by your exertional limitations. Exertional limitations are based on an assessment of your physical strength. The RFC provides useful information that can help determine which exertional level you fit into.
The SSA has five different exertional levels based on how much you are able to physically stand, walk, lift, carry, push and pull. When your exertional level has been determined, it will be compared to your work history to decide whether you are able to return to work, continue working at the same sort of job or whether you have the capacity to learn a different sort of job at a lower exertional level.
The five exertional levels are:
- Sedentary: when you cannot lift anything more than 10 pounds in weight or stand up for more than 2 hours.
- Light: means you can lift ten pounds frequently and occasionally up to 20 pounds. You can stand and move around easily.
- Medium: means you can lift objects of 20 pounds frequently and up to 50 pounds from time to time. Movement, the ability to pull and push with your arms is easy.
- Heavy is the same as medium, the weight of a load that can be lifted is up to 100 pounds occasionally, 50 pounds frequently.
- Very heavy means you can lift more than 100 pounds occasionally.
When a claims adjudicator makes an assessment whether you are capable of working, the definition of ‘being able to work’ includes being productive and capable of working full time without needing to take time off such as frequent rest breaks. A determination at any particular exertional level means that you are able to do work at a lighter level.
For example, if you have been designated at the “medium” level, you are also fit to be able to do light and sedentary work. A decision about your capacity for work is not just limited to exertional capacity but to non exertional capacity as well.
Non-exertional limitations are all those physical and mental limitations which are not strength related. For example, if you cannot bend your arms or feel pain when you bend your neck or open and close your fingers, this would be an example of a non-exertional limitation. Similarly, if you get constant headaches, feel nauseous, suffer from depression frequently or have become mentally impaired for any reason, then these could all also be classified as non-exertional limitations.
To give an example of someone with non-exertional limitations, an accident which leaves someone blind in one eye would mean that he or she would have a serious non-exertional limitation if their most recent job and one they were trained for involved the ability to judge distance accurately. Judging distance requires binocular vision.
As non-exertional limitations can be either physical or mental limitations, the RFC must cover one or the other or both depending on the specific circumstances. For example, if you suffer from pain when you stoop or use your wrists, then this would be documented by a physical RFC. If you suffer from a mental disorder or extreme anxiety, then this would be covered by a mental RFC. The SSA will only assess a RFC if the limitations described are backed up by detailed medical records, so these should not be omitted when applying for SSD benefits.
Should I Hire an Attorney to Help Me Obtain an RFC?
You will receive an RFC evaluation from the SSA, regardless of whether or not you hire a disability attorney. Depending on your relationship with your physician, you may be able to obtain an RFC independently. However, if you are seeking an RFC and having difficulty, an experienced disability attorney may be able to assist you.
Social Security lawyers are skilled at communicating with physicians and can sometimes help in facilitating the completion of an RFC from your doctor. If you have questions about the RFC assessment, it may be wise to see professional advice.