The central question in a Social Security Disability case is whether the person seeking benefits can still work. As a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Kuczewski v. Commissioner shows, this can often be a complicated inquiry. It requires considering a person’s educational background, job history and physical and cognitive abilities, among other factors.
Anthony Kuczewski suffered permanent back and leg injuries as a result of a 1977 car accident when he was 15 years old. He filed a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits in February 2009, asserting that he became disabled and unable to work due to the limitations imposed by his injuries. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied the claims initially and on reconsideration.
Following two hearings before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the judge determined that Kuczewski was disabled under the applicable standards at the time he filed his claim, but that he was not entitled to SSDI benefits because he was not disabled on the date he was last insured, Dec. 31, 2007. In order to be eligible for SSDI benefits, an applicant must have worked for five of the ten years preceding the date of claim. For Kuczewski, the last time he met this requirement was Dec. 31, 2007. The ALJ concluded that Kuczewski was not disabled at that time because there were other jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy that he could have performed up until February 2009.
The judge relied in particular on the testimony of an independent vocational expert (VE) who stated that Kuczewski could have performed jobs as a “simple assembler” which were sufficiently available both regionally and nationwide. The VE reached this conclusion based on Kuczewski’s prior work experience and a psychologist’s report finding that his aptitude for “general learning ability” based on standards set forth in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) is a “Level 5.” This level reflects general learning ability in the lowest 10th percentile of the population.
The District Court vacated the ALJ’s decision on appeal, noting that the “simple assembler” job required a Level 4 general learning ability based on the DOT. While the VE nevertheless opined that Level 5 individuals could be taught to perform some simple assembler jobs, the Court said he did not identify specifically how many of these jobs were available at the time.
“In light of this gap in the record, the Court will remand this matter to the ALJ for further proceedings with the vocational expert to determine the number of jobs available to Plaintiff in light of his age, impairments, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity,” the Court explained. Residual Functional Capacity refers to an individual’s ability to perform certain tasks, taking into account any physical or mental impairments.
As this case makes clear, the question of whether an SSDI benefits seeker can still work often requires complex analysis, not to mention the persistence to stick with the claims process. The key to a successful claim is the proper preparation of an application and strong presentation of medical evidence of disability. A competent Social Security Disability attorney will do this by listening carefully to a client’s medical problems, educational background and job history in order to present the most compelling possible claim.
Related blog posts:
The Social Security Disability Decision Making Process: Beeks v. Commissioner of Social Security
New York Social Security Disability Claimant Shows How Not to Handle an Appeal – Boger v. Astrue
Who Should I Choose to Represent me: a Social Security Disability Lawyer, or an “Advocate”?