Question regarding Judges & Transferable Skills

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BTB71A Judge holding gavel in courtroom. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown.
This is a good question – the short answer is that judges will look to vocational expert witness testimony to determine whether a claimant has acquired transferable skills.
Your question got me thinking that it might be helpful to review how the grid rules work and to take my readers through a grid rule analysis, so, here you go:
The grid rules, or “medical vocational guidelines” can qualify you for Social Security disability benefits even if you have some capacity to work, but you are not likely to find work because of limited skills and a limited education.
In order to qualify for a finding of disability under the grid rules you must have exertional limitations. This means that your medical issues must impact your physical capacity. Thus, a person asserting disability based on depression, or bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia could never qualify under the grid rules 1
You can look at the grid rules here.
The grid rules look at several factors: your age, your education, the skill level of your past work and whether or not your past work generated any transferrable skills. SSA lays out these factors in a table divided by grid lines – thus the name.
When a judge applies the grid rules he first must make a decision about your capacity for work. If you are limited to sedentary work, you are more likely to be found disabled under the grid rules than if you are limited to light or medium work.
Let’s analyze how the grid rules work in practice.
Example: Tom is a 53 year old male with a high school education. Two years ago he underwent spinal fusion surgery that was not successful and now he contends that he can only sit for 15 minutes at a time and 3 hours total during a day. He also testifies that he can only stand and walk for 10 minutes at a time for 2 hours total during the day. Tom previously worked as a forklift operator.
After hearing testimony the judge turns to the vocational witness and asks the following question:
Judge: Please describe the claimant’s past work.
VE: the DOT number for forklift operator is 921.683-050. It is classified as medium work, and semi-skilled with an SVP2 of 3.
Judge: are there any transferable skills to light or sedentary work?
VE: no
Analysis: if the judge finds that the claimant is limited to sedentary work, grid rule 201.14 would apply. 201.14 results in a finding of disabled if the claimant is age 50-54, a high school grad who cannot enter directly into skilled work, and a semi-skilled work background with no transferable skills.
If the judge finds that the claimant is limited to light work, grid rule 202.14 applies. 202.14 results in a finding of not-disabled for a claimant age 50-54, high school graduate, and a semi-skilled work background with no transferable skills.
In this example the judge’s conclusion about whether the claimant is limited to sedentary work or whether he is limited to light work changes the result.
The question of transferability of skills comes down to how the vocational witness classifies a claimant’s past work, what the DOT says about that work and the vocational witnesses’ expert testimony about transferable skills.
Vocational witnesses use a variety of resources to determine whether transferable skills exist. A qualified vocational witness should have personal experience placing injured or partially disabled workers and knowledge about the skills required by various types of jobs.
The DOT itself identifies the tasks involved in each listed job and the VE can extrapolate from that which skills are needed. Vocational witnesses also have access to Department of Labor publications, state labor department publications and scholarly journal articles.
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