Vocational experts are called by Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to testify about the type of work a disability applicant can do. As such, vocational experts are the most important witnesses that can appear at your benefits hearing.
This is what you should know about vocational experts before you consider taking on the task of interviewing one on your own.
What Does a Vocational Expert Do?
As witnesses, vocational experts are supposed to apply their unique knowledge and skills to each disability case in front of the ALJ in an independent, unbiased fashion. The testimony of these witnesses is supposed to be based on their knowledge of the skills required by each profession, each profession’s unique physical, mental, and emotional demands, and a claimant’s transferable job skills.
You need to understand that vocational experts work for Social Security. They are far from independent experts, and their testimony is not often neutral. In addition, their understanding of each job’s requirements is based on descriptions of a job — not actual experience. The description of a job can often vary considerably from the reality of the workplace.
During your hearing, the ALJ will ask the vocational expert to give his or her opinion about what type of jobs you can still do, despite the limitations imposed by your disabling conditions. The vocational expert will describe your past relevant work experience — anything that you’ve done long enough — and tell the judge what jobs you have available based on that experience.
If you can’t persuade the vocational expert’s testimony, your disability claim is going to fail.
How Do You Defeat a Vocational Expert’s Testimony?
You can generally expect a vocational expert to testify that there are at least a few jobs available that you can do, no matter how simple or menial. A significant amount of preparation and skill is necessary to defeat this testimony.
The first thing that your attorney can do is examine exactly what factors the vocational expert used in his or her determination. The vocational expert usually relies on the ALJ’s hypothetical questions about a claimant, which are frequently incomplete pictures of a claimant’s real limitations.
By rephrasing the hypothetical question to include all of your limitations, your attorney can oblige the vocational expert to reexamine the facts of your case.
For example, the vocational expert may testify that a claimant with a back injury (who cannot lift, stand, crawl, or carry anything heavy) can still work a telemarketing job. The back injury wouldn’t preclude sedentary work.
However, that scenario doesn’t take into account additional limitations caused by a claimant’s pain medication. Opioids and muscle relaxants that are necessary to control chronic back pain and muscle spasms can interfere with a person’s ability to concentrate, follow flowcharts, or even stay awake for an 8-hour shift.
A good attorney also knows to elicit testimony from the vocational expert about his or her understanding of a job’s actual duties. Whenever possible, an attorney can often get the vocational expert to admit that the description of those activities omits important information.
For example, a desk job may include a significant amount of standing and bending in order to file documents away or pull documents out of storage. A job described as uncomplicated, like janitorial work, may require a broad range of social skills, self-direction, and problem-solving that a claimant with mental disabilities can’t handle.
Cross-examining the vocational expert is one of the most important jobs a Social Security Disability attorney does at any benefits hearing. This cross-examination is an incredibly difficult thing for a layperson to do effectively because it requires both technical knowledge and the ability to subtly shift a question in order to draw out new testimony. For information about the role of a vocational expert in your own case, talk to the attorneys at Horn & Kelley, PC Attorneys at Law.