SCOTUS to provide guidance on expert testimony in disability cases

The Social Security Act allows individuals with certain disabilities to receive social security disability benefits when unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment" expected to last for twelve consecutive months or result in death. In many cases, an administrative law judge will review applications for these benefits. The review involves a five-step process provided by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The fifth step involves a review of whether the applicant can complete a different form of work. If the judge finds that the applicant could complete other work, benefits are denied.

The term "gainful activity" noted above does not just apply to the applicant's current line of work - it extends to other lines of work as well. Essentially, this means a judge can deny an application if the find the applicant can "make an adjustment to other work." The judge must support such a finding with "substantial evidence." This evidence is often provided by a vocational expert that testifies on jobs that the applicant may be able to complete given the applicant's disability, age, education and work experience. But what if this expert does not back up their finding with evidence? Does the finding still stand? That is the question under review in this case.

Can a vocational expert's finding stand without supporting evidence?

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agreed to decide on whether a vocational expert's testimony can provide evidence of "other work" in a social security disability benefits case when the expert failed to provide data to support the given finding.

In the case under review, a vocational expert provided testimony on potential jobs the applicant could pursue for gainful activity given his impairment. However, the vocation expert was unable to provide evidence when the disabled applicant requested the data and analyses used to support the vocational expert's conclusions. The vocational expert stated she was unable to do so due to the "confidentiality of her files."

Courts have disagreed on whether or not a vocational expert's findings should stand if the expert refuses to provide evidence to support the finding as requested. Some circuits have supported a vocational expert's refusal to provide evidence, others have not. This case is an opportunity for SCOTUS to provide guidance on the issue.

What is the impact of SCOTUS' holding?

A holding from the SCOTUS will apply throughout the country. As such, this ruling will impact any case in the United States that hinges on this same question. SCOTUS expects to hear oral arguments for this case in fall of 2018.