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IL disability lawyerA key component of a Social Security disability hearing is the testimony of a “vocational expert” or VE. The VE's function is to assess the type and quantity of jobs available to a “hypothetical” person with the same physical and mental impairment as the disability applicant. Unfortunately, many VEs are not forthcoming with how they arrive at their conclusions. That is to say, the VE does not provide either the applicant or the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) with the actual data relied upon.

Kagan: Court Rejects “Categorical” Rule Requiring Disclosure of “Private” Data

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has intermediate appellate jurisdiction over disability cases in Illinois, has long held that Social Security cannot rely on the testimony of a VE who refuses to produce their methodology upon the applicant's request. But on April 1, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected such a “categorical” rule and said that going forward, appellate courts would have to decide on a “case-by-case basis” whether a refusal to produce data is unreasonable, with appellate court deferring to the judgment of Social Security ALJs.

The case before the Supreme Court, Biestek v. Berryhill, actually originated in Michigan. The petitioner worked as a carpenter and general construction laborer. He later applied for Social Security disability benefits, citing a number of physical and mental impairments. At a hearing before the Social Security ALJ, a VE testified that based on her data, the petitioner could still perform “sedentary jobs” such as a “bench assembler or sorter,” and that there were 240,000 such positions available nationally for the former and 120,000 for the latter.

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IL disability lawyerIn a recent post, we discussed a federal appeals court decision that chastised Social Security for its failure to properly consider the limits on a disability applicant's "concentration, persistence, and pace.” Such limitations are relevant when assessing an applicant's hypothetical ability to work in spite of their medical impairments. Yet Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) routinely downplay limitations on concentration, persistence, and pace when questioning vocational experts (VEs) at disability hearings.

Court: ALJ Failed to Ask the Right Question of Vocational Expert

And in fact, the same federal appeals court that handed down the decision we previously discussed had to remind Social Security of this yet again. On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit here in Chicago ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing after the ALJ failed to “properly address” the plaintiff's “limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.”

The plaintiff in this particular case, DeCamp v. Berryhill, is a 55-year-old woman who applied for disability benefits, citing her brain tumor, neck and back pain, and bipolar disorder as impairments. At a 2015 hearing before an ALJ, the plaintiff testified that she suffered from frequent migraines–approximately four per week–and that she was limited in her daily activities due to chronic pain. As part of the hearing, the ALJ also posed a hypothetical question to a VE, which asked if an unskilled laborer who “may be off task or off pace up to 10 percent of the work day” outside of normal breaks could still find work in the national economy. The VE replied such work would be hypothetically available; however, if the applicant were “off pace or off task more than 15 percent of the day,” as opposed to 10 percent, then there would be “no competitive work available.”

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