A recent opinion from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Apone v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration lays out the basic framework under which a Social Security Administration (SSA) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is expected to review a Social Security Disability benefits claim. While the decision provides a quick overview of the process, based on many years of success in navigating the system, we assure you that the process is not a simple as the court makes it out to be.
In considering Tanya Apone’s appeal of the SSA’s denial of her disability benefits claim, the court explained the process that an ALJ is required to go through in considering a claim.
The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ must evaluate (1) whether the claimant engaged in substantial gainful work; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals an impairment in the Listings of Impairments; (4) whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; and (5) whether, in the light of the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are other jobs the claimant can perform.
The plaintiff asserted that she was unable to work due to a combination of physical and mental disabilities. The SSA denied her claim and the ALJ upheld the decision after the first hearing, finding that a significant number of jobs existed that Apone could perform and, therefore, she was not disabled. After further appeal, the case was sent back to the ALJ to for a second hearing to include testimony from a Vocational Expert (VE), a professional who, by responding to questions that mirror the claimant’s situation to varying degrees, provides advice to an ALJ regarding a claimant’s ability to perform any type of work activity. The VE indicated that a person with the plaintiff’s limitations could find work as a security officer, cashier or fast food worker. Accordingly, the ALJ again denied the plaintiff’s claim.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial, finding that the ALJ properly considered the claim under the framework described above. Specifically, the court concluded that the ALJ appropriately posed hypothetical questions to the VE based on the plaintiff’s specific limitations and therefore the decision to uphold the denial was supported by the law.
As experienced Social Security attorneys, we understand that although the basic guidelines for considering a disability benefits claim are set in stone, the way in which each judge applies the guidelines to a certain claim and considers the relevant evidence varies widely depending on the judge. For claimants, it is therefore crucial that the attorney representing you not only know the law, but also the ALJ who will apply it in your particular case. Local, experienced disability lawyers are much more likely to understand how a specific judge operates and evaluates a claim than a representative from a national advocacy organization who may have just flown in for the hearing.
Furthermore, in a hearing involving a VE, an experienced disability lawyer can gauge the VE’s impartiality, expertise and professional qualifications, question the VE fully on his responses to the ALJ’s questions and pose his own questions to the VE as well as arguing which set of limitations most closely resembles the claimant. Your lawyer can also object to the VE’s testimony – based on bias, lack of expertise or other valid grounds – if necessary.