To answer these questions, we must first understand how the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines disability.
When seeking disability benefits, you must prove your condition prevents you from working for 12 months or longer.
However, sometimes being unable to work your current job isn’t enough to qualify for benefits. You may need to prove that your disability prevents you from working any job in the U.S. economy that you might reasonably be capable of performing.
How exactly does the SSA go about proving this?
Let’s say you’ve applied for disability benefits. The SSA will review the medical evidence such as notes from doctors’ visits, test and imaging results, information about medications, therapies, and treatments, and written doctors’ opinions about how your disability has progressed.
If this evidence does not fit a precise disability listing, you may still qualify when you can medically prove your condition severely impairs your ability to work and earn income.
However, you may be initially denied and need to file an appeal. In fact, in 2017 only 32% of applicants were approved during the initial stage of their claim. You can have your claim reconsidered, but this often won’t improve your chances unless there was a technical mistake with the decision.
This means a majority of applicants must go through an appeals hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
It’s during this stage of your case that a vocational expert may be called in to help determine if your condition prevents you from working.
What Is a Vocational Expert?
In short, a vocational expert is called upon by the SSA to provide expert opinion testimony during your appeal hearing, in order to aid an ALJ in determining your disability.
If a VE testifies during your hearing, they will review the evidence prior to the hearing, and may appear in person, via video teleconferencing or telephone, or by providing a written rationale called “interrogatories.”
A VE will help determine if you can do the your past same work you have done over the past 15 years—or any work—based on the limiting factors of your condition.
VEs are vocational experts with knowledge about occupational trends, labor market conditions, vocational counseling, job placement practices for handicapped individuals, and more.
They are meant to impartially determine your ability to perform past jobs, as well as any transferable skills, based on your testimony and evidence of the functional limitations caused by your impairment.
They will make determinations factoring:
- Skill level
- Level of impairment
Typically, the judge may ask the VE what hypothetical jobs you would be able to physically and mentally perform in the U.S. economy based on these criteria.
A VE is not called upon for every hearing. However, they may often act as experts in cases when medical evidence and testimony about your disability need further clarification to decide if you should receive benefits.
What Happens During a Disability Hearing?
A disability hearing is a chance for you to clarify how your disability impacts your ability to work and seek a benefits denial to be overturned.
Your chances of winning benefits are about 50% at this stage of the appeal. This means effectively proving your case during the hearing is critical, as winning in the later stages of appeal is much more difficult.
You would typically go to a hearing office within 75 miles of your home, or else you may hold your hearing via video teleconference or telephone.
You will have an opportunity to review the evidence of your case and submit new evidence prior to the hearing.
During the hearing, you will answer questions asked by the ALJ under oath, and the ALJ will explain the issues regarding your case. There may be other witnesses present at the hearing who will also provide testimony under oath. These can include individuals such as:
- Doctors or medical experts
- Vocational Experts
- Any witnesses you bring to the hearing
While the ALJ will have ultimate control over how witnesses are questioned, you will have an opportunity to also question witnesses and submit evidence.
The ALJ will then compose a written decision based on the evidence and send a copy to you of either a decision or dismissal of your claim.
How a Social Security Disability Attorney Can Help
While a qualified attorney can be consulted at any stage of your claim, they can be especially helpful in advocating on your behalf during an ALJ hearing.
This is true for many reasons, including that many attorneys have working relationships with local court officials and understand their legal expectations and preferences. They also have an expert level of knowledge regarding the burden of proof you’ll need to provide during your hearing to overturn a denial.
An attorney can also help you at the trial stage by:
- Helping you prepare an effective strategy for your hearing
- Helping you prepare evidence to be presented
- Advocating on your behalf during the hearing
- Questioning you and other witnesses during the hearing
Crucially, a disability attorney can cross-examine a VE in order to illustrate how your condition prevents you from doing potential jobs the VE has testified you can perform.
This is important because if you cannot successfully show the judge why the VE’s testimony is wrong based on your disability, you will not win your benefits.
If you wish to consult an attorney for your Social Security disability claim, you usually won’t pay an up-front attorney’s fee. Instead, you will only pay a federally regulated percentage of your initial backpay if you win your case.
If your SSDI or SSI claim has been denied, or you’re thinking about filing and don’t know where to start, Affleck and Gordon can help. We’ve been helping people in Georgia just like you for over 45 years. Sign up for a free case evaluation here, or call us (404) 990-3945.