Vocational Expert In Disability Benefits Hearings

Attorney cross-examining vocational expert at disability hearing.

If your application for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits is rejected, you have the right to request an appeal before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The objective of the hearing is to determine the types of jobs you are able to perform in light of your disability, work history, and other factors. To assist with resolving these matters, the ALJ will often call on a vocational expert to appear at the hearing.

Understanding what you are up against in a disability appeals hearing requires knowing what to expect of the vocational expert. The experienced attorneys of Disability Law Group are here to help with this crucial step in the application process.

What Is A Vocational Expert?

A vocational expert is an expert witness hired by the Social Security Administration. This individual has extensive knowledge of the skills required for various occupations, the current nature of the job market, professional earning capacity, and more. The expert’s job is to give an impartial opinion to assist the ALJ in rendering a decision about your case.

What Role Does The Vocational Expert Play?

The overall purpose of the administrative hearing is to give your application and the supporting evidence a fresh look. The ALJ will review the medical records related to your disability and ask you questions about your treatments, work history, and your application. During this phase of the hearing, the ALJ is trying to learn as much as possible about your condition and how it affects your ability to work.

Next, the vocational expert is brought in to testify about your disability and the work you are able to perform. This is done by asking a series of hypothetical questions. The ALJ will ask the expert whether someone with your conditions could perform certain job functions in your line of work.

Consider, for example, a disability applicant with severe back problems. The ALJ may ask a hypothetical question along the lines of:

“What jobs, if any, could an individual of the same age, level of education, and with the same work background as the claimant be able to do if that person could lift no more than 20 pounds on a regular basis, could stand no more than 45 minutes, and needed to rest at different times throughout the day?”

If the vocational expert believes there are jobs this individual could work, based on the hypothetical facts presented in the questions, he or she will let the ALJ know. More specifically, the expert will notify the ALJ of the job title; the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) code; and how many positions there are in the area where you live. In the event the expert testifies that there are jobs the hypothetical person could work despite the conditions asked about, your disability claim is likely to be denied. This is where having an experienced disability benefits attorney is critical.

Why Do I Need An Attorney To Represent Me At The Hearing?

Your attorney can present information at the hearing that will affect what sort of hypothetical questions the ALJ asks the vocational expert. Your attorney also has the right to cross-examine the vocational expert after the ALJ has finished his or her line of questions. This is an important step because ALJ hypothetical questions often leave out certain details relevant to your case.

The purpose of this cross-examination is to rule out jobs that the vocational expert testifies may be available despite the disability. By including limitations not asked by the ALJ, your attorney will hopefully convince the expert to testify that there are no jobs available that you could work.

Challenging the vocational expert’s opinion is necessary because you will almost certainly lose your hearing if you don’t. The simple fact is, the expert’s opinion will weigh heavily in the ultimate determination of whether you will receive benefits.

Let’s say that the vocational expert testifies that you could work a job as an administrative assistant. But your medical records document the fact you cannot bend over or stoop down. On cross-examination, your attorney may ask the expert whether someone with those limitations could still work the administrative assistant job. The expert will likely say no. If there are no other available jobs, your application is likely to be approved.

Weaknesses In The Vocational Expert’s Testimony

The vocational expert is impartial, meaning, he or she has no stake in the ultimate outcome of your disability application. But just because the testimony given is fair does not mean it paints an accurate picture of your disability.

For example, perhaps your work background is as a manual laborer. The vocational expert testifies that there are office positions available that a person with your disability could work. However, your previous qualifications may make it clear that you don’t have the necessary computer skills to work the available jobs indicated by the vocational expert. Moreover, there may be physical requirements of the job that the vocational expert may have left out of their testimony. Your condition may limit your physical abilities to the point that you are unable to work the jobs recommended by the expert.

Often, it’s not a matter of what the vocational expert includes in his or her testimony, but what is left out. The expert’s testimony will likely come across as knowledgeable and impressive. That’s why having a skilled attorney is essential to identifying weaknesses in the expert’s testimony.

Contact A Michigan Social Security Disability Benefits Attorney

The role of the vocational expert cannot be understated, and neither can the importance of presenting a compelling case at your hearing. Turn to the dedicated attorneys of Disability Law Group. If you have a pending disability hearing or have questions about your benefits, we can help. Call us today.