The Social Security Administration still relies heavily on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and its companion publications, the SCO) for information about occupations in the national economy. Whether or not this remains a sound approach is a discussion for another day.
The definition of disability as defined by social security is the inability to do any substantial gainful work, or in other words to do any kind of full-time job that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
Social Security often uses Vocational Experts (VEs) and/or Vocational Specialists (VSs) to help resolve difficult issues.
Vocational Experts are typically used at a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) if the case makes it that far.
Vocational Specialists are typically used at the initial or reconsideration steps of the process.
When there is a conflict between occupational evidence provided by a VE or VS and that set forth in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the adjudicator must probe for a reasonable explanation to resolve the difference.
In such a situation, neither the VE or VS or the DOT automatically trumps. The adjudicator must use her best judgment in resolving the conflict after fully developing the record.
A couple of reasonable explanations for differences between VE or VS evidence and the DOT are: 1) since the DOT does not contain information about all occupations, information about a particular job’s requirements may not be listed in the DOT, but may be available in other reliable publications or from a VE’s or VS’s experience in job placement or career counseling. 2) The DOT lists maximum requirements of occupations as generally performed. A VE or VS may be able to provide more specific information about jobs or occupations than the DOT.
However, an adjudicator cannot accept evidence from a VE or VS that conflicts with administrative policy. For example, a VE or VS cannot be relied upon to establish that unskilled work involves complex duties that take many months to learn, because this conflicts with the regulatory definition of unskilled work. Evidence from a VE or VS cannot establish that an individual gained skills that could potentially be transferred to other work by performing unskilled work. This is because an person does not gain transferable skills by doing unskilled work.
Whenever a VE or VS provides information about the requirements of a job or occupation, the adjudicator has an affirmative responsibility to ask if there is any possible conflict between that information and the DOT. If so, the adjudicator must obtain a reasonable explanation for the conflict.
One example I have come across is with the sit/stand option. Oftentimes, I have heard VEs testify about what effect there would be on a person’s employability if he or she needed to be able to sit or stand at will. The so-called sit/stand option is not described in the DOT. So, the adjudicator must ask the VE the basis for her opinion. The response is usually that the VE’s gained this knowledge from experience in placing handicapped people in various jobs and thus has a thorough understanding of the job market.
In my judgment, it is important for a VE to have recent significant experience in vocational rehabilitation in order to have an up close understanding of the job market.
This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.