Applying for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration is a long process. Claimants have to be sure they get plenty of medical records, send in their application, appeal if need be and, after all that, if they are not approved, go to a hearing. At the hearing, there will be expert witnesses, something applicants should be prepared for with legal help.
Harold W. Conick has been practicing law for more than three decades and knows what it takes to cross-examine these expert witnesses. He answered some questions about these SSA-employed experts.
Question: Who are the expert witnesses that appear at a hearing?
Conick: The Social Security Administration hires expert witnesses for the hearing who are vocational and medical experts (either physicians or psychologists). They essentially are someone who is an expert in jobs and a doctor. The medical expert is at the hearings to help the judge understand the medical evidence. The vocational expert is there to answer questions about what types of jobs might be available considering limitations caused by a medical condition.
Q: Why are the experts important?
C: The client has to know that those experts are hired by the SSA and they generally lean towards assisting the administration with understanding the medical and vocational evidence. However, they have a tendency to be biased. Not all of them are but some of them are.
Q: How do you prepare for the bias?
C: You presume that they are biased and just ask them questions on cross examination that will support my theory of the case. The questions I ask them will elicit testimony that is supportive of the client’s case. I’ll try to use them as my expert in that sense.
Q: What should a client know about these witnesses before going in?
C: They should know that the experts are generally going to try to interpret the medical evidence such that the judge would not consider the claimant disabled. There really isn’t much the client can do about it. Their best shot is what their own medical records can show the judge. The experts tend to find the person isn’t so sick that they can perform some type of the job
Cross-examination is important. That’s one of the values lawyers bring to the case. A good attorney can cross-examine the expert witness on the fly.
Q: Is there ever a shift in who is considered employable due to the economy?
C: The economy doesn’t really have anything to do with it. Experts are looking at a hypothetical person with certain limitations and whether they can perform a job. There are different categories of jobs: Sedentary, light, medium and heavy exertional levels. The vocational expert can testify to a hypothetical given by the judge as to whether the person has the same limitations and can perform certain level of job activity.
Q: How much bearing does what the expert says have on the court’s decision?
C: It’s significant. If the vocational expert testifies that there is no work a claimant can do, the judge has to find them disabled. If they say otherwise, the judge will consider that too. It’s evidence.
A lot of it is like judges: It will depend on which expert you get. They look at the evidence beforehand and make a judgement call. They don’t try to be dishonest, but they also know who pays them.