The Impact of Vocational Experts in Social Security Disability Cases

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Vocational experts play an important role in Social Security disability hearings. The administrative law judge (ALJ) who decides the case might elicit testimony from a vocational expert who is under contract with the Social Security Administration (SSA). That expert will never know as much about the case as the person who makes a claim for disability benefits. That person’s lawyer may want to hire his or her own vocational expert, either to testify at the hearing or to provide guidance that will assist the cross-examination of the SSA’s expert.

Social Security Disability Benefits

Two programs administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) award benefits to disabled individuals. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits are available to individuals who are “insured” by virtue of their work history. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are available to disabled individuals who have limited assets. A key difference between the two programs is that SSI benefits are means tested and SSDI benefits are not.

Most individuals are “insured” for SSDI disability benefits when they earn 40 work credits, but only if 20 credits were earned within the last 10 years before the disability began. Workers who become disabled before the age of 31 need fewer credits to be insured by SSDI.

Workers earn a work credit by earning a defined amount of income during a tax year. That amount changes every year. In 2022, workers need to earn $1,510 to earn a work credit. 

Workers earn a maximum of 4 credits during each tax year. After earning $6,040 during 2022, a worker will have earned all 4 credits that are available in that year.

Eligibility for SSDI benefits depends solely on work credits, assuming the person who applies meets the SSA’s definition of “disabled.” The benefits are available to insured individuals who are disabled regardless of the assets they may own. 

Unlike SSDI benefits, SSI benefits are available to disabled individuals who are not “insured” by virtue of their work history. However, SSI benefits are only available to individuals who have few assets. 

In 2022, individuals who have certain assets valued at more than $2,000, and couples with certain assets worth more than $3,000, will usually not qualify for SSI benefits. Those assets include cash, bank account balances, investments, land, jewelry, and most personal property. A few assets are not counted, including the individual’s home, household goods, personal effects (such as clothing and a wedding ring), and one vehicle.

How the SSA Defines “Disability”

The SSDI and SSI programs share the same definition of “disability.” An individual is “disabled” for the purpose of SSDI or SSI benefits if the individual is:

1. incapable of engaging in substantial gainful activity because of a severely disabling medical condition; and
2. the condition has lasted or is expected to last more than a year or to result in death in less than a year.

The existence of a medical condition is proved by medical records and other medical evidence. The severity of a disabling medical condition is measured by whether it significantly impairs the ability to earn income and has done so, or will continue to do so, for at least 12 months. Proof of severity hinges on whether the condition makes the person seeking benefits incapable of engaging in substantial gainful activity.

With the exception of a few medical conditions that are obviously disabling, the Social Security Administration decides whether a person with a serious impairment is capable of engaging in substantial gainful activity by asking two questions: 

1. Is the applicant earning more than a defined threshold income? An applicant who is earning that amount of income or more is not eligible for disability benefits.
2. Is the applicant capable of engaging in substantial gainful employment? If so, the applicant is not eligible for disability benefits.

In 2022, the threshold income that defines “substantial gainful employment” is $1,350 a month. Any person who earns more than amount will not qualify for benefits.

When applicants earn no income at all, or are earning less than the threshold income, the question is whether the applicant is capable of earning that income. Vocational experts are in the best position to answer that question.

Vocational Experts at Social Security Hearings

Vocational experts determine whether a person is capable of substantial gainful employment by examining several factors, including the person’s education and training, work history, military history, and limitations that are documented in medical records. Vocational experts ask whether the individual gained skills in a job the individual can no longer perform that are transferrable to a job the individual is capable of performing.

After a vocational expert determines the limitations imposed by a health condition — such as limitations in the ability to stand, sit, bend, concentrate, or communicate — the expert searches for jobs that an individual with those limitations can perform. The expert then rules out jobs that the individual might be physically or mentally capable of performing but for which the individual is not qualified.

If any jobs remain after conducting that analysis, the vocational expert consults labor market surveys to determine whether those jobs exist in substantial numbers in the national economy. If so, the administrative law judge will likely find that the person is capable of performing substantial gainful activity.

The vocational experts who are under contract with the SSA base their testimony on limited information contained in questions posed by the administrative law judge. They often fail to understand the full extent of an applicant’s disabling condition. For example, the individual might be physically capable of performing certain undemanding jobs, but the individual may have been consistently fired from similar jobs because of an inability to follow instructions or anger issues that are a symptom of the disability.

A private vocational expert can conduct a thorough review of the applicant’s ability to work, including interviews with the applicant’s family members and past employers. A private vocational expert may discover evidence that negates the conclusion that the applicant can engage in substantial gainful employment. The applicant’s lawyer can then present that evidence at the disability hearing or can use information supplied by the private expert to guide cross-examination of the SSA’s expert.