Skill Level and Social Security Disability Claims
During the process of reviewing an application for disability benefits, Social Security officials must determine not only what limitations there are on the applicant’s ability to work, but also what jobs, if any, the applicant can perform despite these limitations. In making this latter determination, Social Security will often rely on the testimony of vocational experts (VEs), who answer hypothetical questions posed by administrative law judges (ALJs). The ALJ and the VE will also consult the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a document previously published by the Department of Labor, which outlines the skill requirements for various jobs.
Social Security Must Address Conflicts Between VE Testimony, DOT Job Descriptions
There are situations where a conflict may exist between the VE’s testimony and the DOT. That is to say, the VE may state a disability applicant is capable of performing a particular job–and is therefore not legally disabled–even though the applicant cannot actually perform the tasks required of that job under the DOT. The ALJ is required to resolve any such conflicts, and if they do not, the applicant may be entitled to a new hearing.
This was the case in a recent disability appeal from Florida, Peters v. Saul. The plaintiff here applied for disability benefits based on a number of physical and mental impairments. At a hearing, the ALJ found the applicant was “mentally limited to simple, routine tasks.” A vocational expert testified that in spite of this limitation, the plaintiff could still work as a “document preparer, order clerk, or call out operator,” as those positions were defined in the DOT. Based on this testimony, the ALJ denied the plaintiff’s disability claim.
A federal magistrate judge ordered a new hearing, however, after finding the VE’s testimony was actually in conflict with the DOT. As the magistrate explained, all positions in the DOT have an assigned “reasoning level” of between 1 and 6. This reasoning level measures a person’s “ability to engage in certain basic functions related to education and require the [disability applicant] to be capable of carrying out instructions and perform mental tasks.”
In this case, the three jobs identified by the VE all require a reasoning level of 3. According to the DOT, jobs at this reasoning level require a person to apply a “commonsense understanding to carry out instructions furnished in written, oral, or diagrammatic form.” Yet the ALJ found the plaintiff could only perform “simple, routine tasks,” which suggested she only had a reasoning level of 1.
The magistrate said the ALJ was legally required to address this apparent conflict between the VE’s testimony and the DOT. Having failed to do so, the magistrate returned the case to Social Security for a new hearing.
Speak with a National Disability Benefits Lawyer Today
Many people are wrongfully denied disability benefits based on an incorrect assessment of their actual employment prospects. National SSD eligibility lawyer Stephen Barszcz can assist you in making sure that Social Security considers all of the facts relevant to your situation and follows the law. Contact his office today at 877-655-2667 to schedule a consultation.