Vocational Experts: Who are They and What is Their Role at the Hearing?

A vocational expert plays a large role in any social security disability hearing. By definition, a vocational expert is a professional who provides impartial expert opinion evidence about a claimant's vocational abilities that a judge considers when making a decision about disability (Vocational Expert Handbook, August 2017, p. 3). Typically, a vocational expert will appear at a social security disability hearing in person, by video teleconference, or via telephone. Simply put, a judge uses a vocational expert to determine whether a claimant can do his or her past work or other work available in the economy (Handbook, p. 8). A vocational expert will give opinion based on their knowledge of physical and mental demands of certain occupations, characteristics of work settings, existence and incidence of jobs within occupations, and provide analysis on the issue of transferable skills when necessary (p. 8).

But the bigger question is how does this testimony look at a hearing? At the hearing, the judge will first ask the vocational expert to classify any past relevant work the claimant has done. This work is generally performed within the last fifteen years and is must meet certain requirements to be classified as past relevant work. After classification of past relevant work, the judge will then give hypothetical questions for the vocational expert to answer. Hypothetical questions typically include a variety of physical and mental limitations. Physical limitations may include an individual being able to stand/walk 6 hours out of an 8 hour day or occasionally being able to climb stairs. Mental limitations include things such as an individual being able to perform simple, routine, repetitive task and being able to occasionally interact with the public on the job. Overall, an example of a hypothetical may be the following: "An individual of the same age, educational level, and work history as the claimant and this individual cannot stand more than 4 hours out of an 8 hour day, cannot reach overhead with the upper right extremity, and cannot lift more than 10 pounds." The vocational expert then must tell the judge whether those limitations listed in the hypothetical allow the individual to do the claimant's past work. If no past work can be done within the bounds of those limitations, the vocational expert will then testify as to what jobs (if there are any) that a person with those work-related limitations in the hypothetical can do. Your attorney will also have a chance to question the vocational expert to try and rule out jobs listed. Overall, to learn more about how a vocational expert can impact your specific disability claim you can consult with an attorney. Having your specific work restrictions, limitations, and abilities assessed prior to the hearing will help you better prepare for how a vocational expert may testify in your case.

References/Links:

(Vocational Expert Handbook: https://www.ssa.gov/appeals/public_experts/Vocational_Experts_(VE)_Handbook-508.pdf)

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