Assessing Your Past Relevant Work When Applying for Disability Benefits
In order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, agency officials must first determine whether or not you are capable of performing any type of meaningful work activity. A key factor in making this determination is an examination of your “past relevant work.” Social Security regulations define past relevant work as any “substantial gainful activity” that you performed within the past 15 years. Normally, a job needs to last at least three months to be considered past relevant work. And if you only worked “sporadically” or for “brief periods” within the past 15 years, the regulations permit a finding that you have “no relevant work experience.”
Social Security Must Give Specific Reasons Why You Can Still Perform Previous Jobs
At a disability benefits hearing, you have the burden of proving to Social Security that you can no longer perform any of your past relevant work. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) will consider your evidence along with testimony from a vocational expert (VE). The ALJ then makes a final determination as part of your overall application.
While an ALJ has broad discretion to weigh the available evidence, they cannot simply find you are capable of performing your past relevant work without providing adequate reasons. For example, a federal magistrate judge in California recently returned a disability application to Social Security for further proceedings because the ALJ failed to offer such reasons. In this case, Alberto M. v. Saul, an applicant for disability benefits previously worked as a real estate appraiser. The applicant said he could no longer perform this work due to a variety of physical impairments.
As relevant here, the applicant suffered from hearing loss. The ALJ determined this impairment prevented the applicant from “working around noise.” Nevertheless, the ALJ said the applicant could still work as a real estate appraiser.
The magistrate noted the evidence contradicted the ALJ’s finding. According to the vocational expert who testified at the hearing, the applicant could not perform his relevant past work. Additionally, state agency consultants who reviewed the applicant’s medical records said he needed to “avoid even moderate exposure to noise.” Yet the ALJ insisted it “defies common sense” to hold the applicant could not work in a job that exposed him to noise.
But as the magistrate explained, the issue was not whether the applicant could be exposed to any amount of noise in the workplace. Rather, it was whether the applicant could perform a job at the noise level required by his relevant past work as a real estate appraiser. Since the ALJ never made a specific finding on this point, the magistrate said a new hearing was required.
Speak with a Disability Benefits Attorney Today
Your past relevant work is just one of many factors that will decide the fate of your application for disability benefits. National SSD eligibility lawyer Stephen Barszcz can provide you with skilled legal representation throughout the disability process. Contact his office today at 877-655-2667 to schedule a consultation.