Social Security Disability Vocational Expert
Social Security Disability Vocational Expert At My SSD Hearing
To obtain Social Security Disability benefits in Florida, you must be disabled.
While this may seem obvious, the definition of “disability” utilized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) is a legal definition.
To be disabled in the eyes of the SSA and thus entitled to Disability benefits, you must suffer from:
- An inability to perform any “substantial gainful” activity …
- By reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which …
- Can be expected to last 12 months or more or to result in death.
This Article will focus on the first of those bulleted requirements: the inability to perform any “substantial gainful activity.” In particular, we will discuss the burden that you have to provide evidence to the SSA or to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that you actually are unable to perform that “substantial gainful activity.” Specifically, this Article will explore the role that an individual known as the Vocational Expert (VE) plays in this process.
First, what do we mean by “substantial gainful activity?”
Substantial Gainful Activity and the SSD Claims Process in Florida
An inability to perform any “substantial gainful activity” means that your medical condition not only prevents you from performing the work you did prior to contracting the condition but also prevents you from adjusting to any other kind of work, taking your age, education, and previous work experience into account.
The Social Security Act further clarifies that it is not relevant whether:
- The work actually exists in your immediate geographic area;
- Whether a specific job vacancy actually exists; or
- Whether or not you would actually be hired for that work if you applied for it.
It is a much more hypothetical proposition, in other words: if you could do that type of work, period, your Disability benefits application may be denied.
Further, “substantial gainful activity” is work activity that:
- Involves significant physical or mental activities; and
- Is done for pay or profit—whether or not any profit is actually earned.
Self-care, hobbies, therapy, school attendance, club activities, and social programs are not “work activity” as far as the SSA is concerned.
Substantial gainful activity is generally measured by the SSA in terms of gross monthly earnings. When those earnings received from the work activity as described above are above a certain amount per month, you have engaged in “substantial gainful activity” for purposes of establishing (or not) a “disability.”
The amount you are able to earn and still quality for Social Security Disability benefits is adjusted each year.
For 2022, the SGA amount for non-blind individuals is $2,260 per month. For blind individuals, it is $1,350 per month.
If you are able to earn more than that amount in the analysis performed by the SSA, your Social Security Disability benefits application will be denied.
If you are unable to earn more than the SGA amount, the SSA will then examine the severity of your medical condition.
A medical condition is “severe” enough to support your Disability benefits claim if it significantly limits your ability to do the basic work activities needed to do most jobs.
The SSA will catalog your ability to function physically, engaging in activities such as running, walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, handling, seeing, hearing, and speaking. It will also catalog your ability to function mentally: understanding, carrying out instructions, remembering, using proper judgment, responding to supervision, and dealing with changed routines.
Even if you cannot perform substantially gainful activity, if your condition is not “severe” enough, you will also be denied Disability benefits.
If you do meet the eligibility criteria described thus far, the SSA or, at a hearing, the ALJ, will determine whether or not you retain any “Residual Functional Capacity” (RFC). RFC is the most that you can do despite whatever physical or mental limitations you have, including any pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, or other impairments.
In the light of the answer to that analysis, the SSA will then, finally, question whether you are capable of performing any past relevant work—or any other work at all.
All of this is important to know for discussion of the role of the Vocational Expert in your case. Your work history and ability to work are specifically the subject-matter with which the VE is concerned—and upon which he or she is questioned in your claims process.
What is that process, however?
The Florida Social Security Disability Benefits Process
Where or when does that denial—or approval—happen in the Social Security Disability benefits claims process?
If you are unable to perform substantial gainful activity under the analysis described above, your claim may be approved. If you are not—it may be denied, requiring you to appeal the decision.
And that is the general process for filing and arguing a Social Security Disability benefits claim in Florida.
However, for purposes of clarity, the usual process flows in this way:
- You file your initial claim application online or in-person at a Social Security Administration office.
- If your claim is initially denied, you may request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.
- If denied again, you can appeal to the SSA Appeals Council.
- If denied yet again, you can file a further appeal in Federal Court.
The Vocational Expert steps into this process at Step 2: the administrative appeal hearing before the ALJ.
What Does the Social Security Disability Vocational Expert Do At My Orlando Disability Hearing?
The Vocational Expert, or VE, is employed by the ALJ at your SSD hearing to help the Judge understand whether you can or cannot perform your previous work or another sort of work given your age, experience, and other factors.
The VE is a functionary of the Administrative Law Court and is paid by the SSA. However, the VE is required to be impartial and to render an opinion for the ALJ based upon his or her honest assessment.
A Vocational Expert will assess, in particular:
- The skill level and physical and mental requirements of various occupations;
- The characteristics and accessibility of different work settings;
- The existence of jobs and rate of occurrence of jobs within occupations;
- The transferability of your skills within the framework of SSA regulatory requirements for work skill transferability.
VEs are professionals with a working knowledge of industrial and occupational trends and labor market conditions. Their experience includes vocational counseling, job placement for handicapped workers, and knowledge of the various vocational reference sources utilized not only by the SSA but by regulators and employers throughout the country.
Further, Vocational Experts are trained in the application of the SSA’s disability determination analysis (as described above).
So what do the Social Security Disability Vocational Expert do at your Orlando Disability hearing?
During your hearing, you will be asked questions by the ALJ. The ALJ will also ask questions to the Vocational Expert.
The questions posed to the VE will generally involve hypothetical framings of age, work experience, work limitations, and education. Medical questions will not be posed to a Vocational Expert.
The VE is required to provide complete answers to the questions asked and to ensure the impartiality of those answers.
How does the Vocational Expert know what to say?
Prior to an SSD hearing, the VE will receive your case file, or at least the relevant portions, from the ALJ. The VE will familiarize him- or herself with your case, your facts, your condition, and your work and employment history.
Once the Social Security Disability Vocational Expert reviews your file, he or she will apply your factual circumstances to the SSA’s Medical-Vocational Guidelines, otherwise known as “the Grid Rules.”
The Grid Rules utilized by the Social Security Disability Vocational Expert and the SSA are essentially a chart that organizes the various legal Rules applicable to sedentary work, light work, and “medium” work (in terms of the exertional effort required to perform the task) to simplify the determination that you are or are not disabled.
The Grid Rules chart creates an analytical flow for the VE, leading from the starting and supporting point of a specific legal rule mandating the (end) result, through your age and previous work experience and education to the conclusion that you are disabled—or not.
The Vocational Expert will then, at hearing, describe this analysis to the ALJ, render an opinion, and the ALJ will consider that opinion in the rendering of the final decision as to your inability.
The ALJ is not required to entirely rely on the opinion of the Vocational Expert.
The Vocational Expert & Florida Disability Hearings: The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that it is important to consult an experienced Orlando Disability Lawyer to have your specific circumstances, ability to work, and condition evaluated by an experienced legal professional.
At The Law Offices of Shea A. Fugate, PA, we will ensure that your Florida Disability claim is reviewed with particular emphasis upon the need to prove that you are unable to engage in substantially gainful activity.