The Importance of Assessing Your “Past Relevant Work” in a Disability Application
In assessing an application for disability benefits, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) needs to consider both an applicant’s “past relevant work” (PRW) as well as what other jobs they might be able to perform, taking into account any physical or mental impairments. If an applicant can neither return to their PRW nor find another job that exists “in significant numbers in the national economy,” then that applicant is likely to receive disability benefits.
Federal Appeals Court Orders Third Hearing for Truck Driver Twice Denied Disability Benefits
Of course, the ALJ can get these critical assessments wrong. Consider this recent decision from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Kimes v. Commissioner. In this case, a former truck driver from New Mexico successfully petitioned the appeals court for a new disability hearing based on legal errors made by the ALJ.
The plaintiff is currently 65 years old. He dropped out of high school and spent most of his working years as a long-haul truck driver. In 2013, the plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, citing a long time back injury that led to degenerative disc disease.
The ALJ denied the plaintiff’s application after determining that he could “perform his past relevant work as a truck driver,” or in the alternative, there was other work he could perform, such as an “automobile detailer” or “industrial cleaner.”
This led to two rounds of appeals. A federal judge held that the ALJ failed to properly consider the expert opinions of the plaintiff’s treating physician. This prompted a second hearing before a different ALJ, who nevertheless denied the plaintiff’s application for similar reasons. Again, the plaintiff appealed, which this time led to the 10th Circuit.
With respect to the plaintiff’s PRW, the appeals court said the second ALJ never bothered to make any findings regarding the “physical and mental demands of the job of tractor-trailer truck driver.” Many truck drivers are required to “drive up to 11 hours at a time, with only a 30-minute break every eight hours,” the Tenth Circuit noted. Yet the ALJ never explained if the plaintiff could actually meet such physical demands given his back injury.
Similarly, the ALJ never made proper inquiries into whether the jobs of “automobile detailer” or “industrial cleaner” actually existed in “significant numbers” as to qualify as proper alternative jobs for the plaintiff. For these reasons, the appeal court said Social Security needed to conduct a third hearing on the plaintiff’s disability application.
Get Help from a National Disability Attorney Today
It may seem crazy that a person has to go through two rounds of appeals and three separate hearings just to get fair consideration of their disability application. But this is unfortunately the reality of our legal system. And it means that if you need to apply for disability, you should not attempt to navigate the system by yourself.