The drafters of the Social Security laws and regulations had common sense. They knew that an older (over 50) coal miner or laborer will probably not switch to a job as a typist if illness or injury physically prevents doing his or her past job. That is why they drafted the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, also known as 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, or “the Grids” for short.
How do the rules work for disability claimants over 50?
The rules direct a finding that the claimant is “disabled” by agency definitions if certain conditions are met.
Here are a couple of common scenarios:
Joe has been a laborer with a concrete company his whole life. He is 52 (closely approaching advanced age). He has a high school education. The wear and tear of his job and his arthritis took a toll on his hips, knees, and shoulders. He has had surgeries, steroid injections, and physical therapy, but still cannot do his past job. His doctor restricted him to sedentary work with only occasional pushing/pulling, reaching, lifting, and carrying and never handling more than 20 pounds at a time. Joe would be found “disabled” under Grid Rule 201.14 (limited to sedentary).
Mary has been a shuttle car operator in the coal mines for 25 years. She is 56 (advanced age). She has a GED. She has undergone spine surgery which did not relieve either her low back pain or the occasional numbness in her legs. She has had both knees replaced and has advanced arthritic changes in her shoulders. She has difficulty walking and standing and sitting for very long. It is difficult for her to climb up into the cab of the equipment and operate the foot and hand controls. Her doctor restricted her to light work, never handling, pushing/pulling more than 25 pounds and only infrequently using foot and hand controls. Mary would be found “disabled” under Grid Rule 202.06 (limited to light).
Who do they help the most?
The Medical-Vocational Guidelines help workers whose jobs are labor intensive. Think of it this way: if you take your shower or bath at the end of the day because you are sweaty or dirty from work, your job is probably labor intensive.
The Medical-Vocational Guidelines do not help workers who have had sedentary jobs (mostly sitting, occasionally lifting up to 10 pounds).
What if part of my job involved some sitting and paperwork but also required a lot of standing, walking, lifting and carrying?
A job that involves two different sets of skills and two different levels of exertion is called a “composite job.” These jobs are very common. They require two types of work, for example medium exertion (physical labor) part of the time and sedentary work (preparing reports, reading blueprints, etc.) part of the time. When the worker can no longer do the part of the job that demands physical labor (working up a sweat), the employer often cannot place the worker in a full time position that only requires only the sedentary tasks. The rules for analyzing a composite job are favorable to the claimant at Step IV of the Sequential Evaluation process (Can claimant perform his/her past relevant work?).
What if I change age category (turn 50 or 55 or 60) between my onset date and the hearing?
If a claimant’s alleged disability onset date is, for example, at age 54, and by the time the case gets to hearing the claimant is 57 years old, the case could be analyzed according to two different Grid Rules—one for persons closely approaching advanced age (between age 50 and age 55) and one for persons of advanced age (between age 55 and age 60). It is not unusual for a judge to suggest that the claimant amend the alleged onset date to the day before the 55th birthday in situations like this.
If these rules are in the regulations, do I need an attorney or representative to make the argument for me?
You don’t need an attorney or representative if you can do the following things:
- Obtain appropriate opinion evidence from an acceptable medical source of your functional limitations;
- Present a compelling argument that your doctor’s opinion is based on substantial evidence and deserves greater weight than the agency medical consultants’ opinions;
- Develop a clear vocational description of your past relevant work;
- Determine what Grid Rule applies to your case; and
- Effectively cross-examine the vocational expert about your transferable skills...
... in a hearing that lasts less than one hour.
In other words, I strongly recommend that you allow a Social Security Disability representative to argue your case at the hearing. Even if you understand things like functional limitations and Grid Rules, all of the italicized words in the above list are subjective. It is impossible to know if your definition of words like "appropriate" and "clear" will be the same as the judge. An attorney who has been around the block can tell you what will work... and what won't.
Joni Beth Bailey is a Southern Illinois Social Security Disability attorney.