The ALJ will almost always call a vocational expert (“VE”) to testify at the hearing. The VE is supposedly independent and does not favor either side. (Even though the VE’s fees are paid for by the government.) The VE generally has two jobs. First, the VE will characterize your past work during the past 15 years. The VE will try to find your jobs in a book called the Directory of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). Using information from the DOT, the VE will classify your past jobs in terms of exertional level (very heavy, heavy, medium, light and sedentary) and skill level (how long it took to learn the job). Second, the VE will answer various hypothetical questions posed by the ALJ and your attorney. The hypothetical questions involve a hypothetical worker with specific medical limitations, and the VE’s job is to say whether the hypothetical person could perform the claimant’s past relevant work or any other work in the national economy. The ALJ and attorney will probably ask several hypotheticals stating different hypothetical medical limitations. The ALJ will usually ask both unfavorable and favorable hypotheticals. An unfavorable hypothetical is one in which the VE identifies jobs that could be performed by the hypothetical person. A favorable hypothetical is one in which the VE responds by saying there is no work in the national economy that could be done by such a hypothetical person. Ultimately, when deciding the case, the judge will adopt as true the hypothetical that he believes most closely resembles the claimant. Typically the ALJ will ask both favorable and unfavorable hypotheticals to give him flexibility to decide the case in either direction (favorable or unfavorable).
The ALJ sometimes will also call one or more medical experts (MEs) to testify at the hearing. The MEs are independent medical experts who have reviewed the claimant’s records but have not actually examined the claimant. An ME will be used to help the ALJ identify the claimant’s severe medically determinable impairments, determine whether the claimant meets or equals any listings, and determine what the claimant’s functional limitations might be.
Of course, some expert witnesses are better than others. An effective cross-examination by an experienced Social Security disability attorney can mean the difference between winning and losing. However, in order to conduct an effective cross-examination, the attorney must be familiar with the myriad of rules and regulations, and must know the medical record inside and out.