If you are about to have a hearing in your Social Security disability claim, you may have received a notice in the mail telling you that there will be a vocational expert present at your hearing. Perhaps you wondered what this term meant, or what the vocational expert would be doing there.
A vocational expert is a person whose background is in vocational rehabilitation and counseling, helping people return to the work force after they have suffered some sort of physical or mental impairment that prevents them from doing the type of work that they used to do. When vocational counselors are trying to help someone return to work, they might evaluate their client’s physical and/or mental strengths and weaknesses and then use that information to try to place that person into a job that is better suited to his or her capabilities.
However, in the context of a disability hearing, the vocational expert (often called a “VE” for short) has a different role. The vocational expert is at your hearing to testify about what types of jobs somebody with various limitations could theoretically perform. The vocational expert is supposed to offer an unbiased opinion about the kind of work available, if any, to someone with your limitations.
The vocational expert will have reviewed the evidence in your file pertaining to the jobs that you did in the past. After you have testified about why you cannot work, the judge will begin to question the vocational expert. Usually, the judge will start by asking the vocational expert to describe the jobs that you have done in the past 15 years. In our Social Security language, this is called your “Past Relevant Work.” After the vocational expert characterizes your Past Relevant Work, the judge will then ask the him or her a series of hypothetical questions about whether someone with various physical or mental limitations could (a) still perform your Past Relevant Work and (b) if not, whether there are other jobs someone with those limitations could do instead.
This is where having an attorney representing you can really give you an advantage. The way the judge questions the vocational expert is not like anything you have probably ever seen before. For example, when you watch court shows on TV, you don’t normally hear witnesses being asked hypothetical questions, but that is the format that the courts use in Social Security disability cases. So, if you are unrepresented, you may not know how to cross-examine the vocational expert in the most proper or strategically useful way.
However, as attorneys who only handle Social Security disability cases, we at Morgan & Weisbrod have years of experience in cross-examining vocational experts. The judge may not include all of the limitations that actually affect YOU in his or her questions to the vocational expert. However, if you are represented by a Morgan & Weisbrod attorney, we will make sure to ask the vocational expert about each limitation that affects your ability to work. By effectively cross-examining the vocational expert, we can help prove that there are not enough jobs that someone with your impairments could perform 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year.
by Paul B. Burkhalter Managing Partner of Morgan & Weisbrod, Board Certified in Social Security Disability Law.