One of the more technical and intimidating aspects for individuals who worked in highly skilled jobs is understanding how transferable skills are analyzed during the disability hearing. For claimants with skilled or highly skilled work backgrounds—as opposed to those with only unskilled backgrounds requiring little training or education— winning a disability claim can become more complicated if a judge believes that the Claimant possesses a set of transferable work skills due to their past relevant work. For more information on past relevant work, please click here. This article will provide a brief introduction that will help the reader to better understand how judges analyze whether or not an individual has a requisite skill set to perform other work than their past relevant work despite their disabilities.
The Vocational Expert and the DOT
At some point during a hearing, depending on the judge’s preference, the judge will determine, with the aid of a vocational expert (VE) all of a claimant’s past relevant work, and the associated Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) codes for each job. It can be useful to understand the breakdown of a DOT code to better understand the process of analyzing transferable skills. The DOT assigns a nine-digit code to a great number of jobs commonly found in the national economy. In reality, this code book is outdated – it was last updated in the early 1990s, and many jobs cannot be found within because of the passage of time, or because of the practical impossibility of recording every possible job found within the USA. Still, the list is comprehensive enough to be accorded authority in the adjudication process.
A Sample DOT Excerpt
To analyze an occupational title from the DOT, see below the DOT’s entry for an office nurse:
TITLE: NURSE, OFFICE
DESCRIPTION: Cares for and treats patients in medical office, as directed by physician: Prepares patient for and assists with examinations. Administers injections and medications, dresses wounds and incisions, interprets physician’s instructions to patients, assists with emergency and minor surgery, and performs related tasks as directed. Maintains records of vital statistics and other pertinent data of patient. Cleans and sterilizes instruments and equipment, and maintains stock of supplies. May conduct specified laboratory tests. May record and develop electrocardiograms. May act as receptionist, perform secretarial duties, and prepare monthly statements.
Step 1: Identifying the Occupational Group
The first element of the DOT classification involves the DOT code. The first 3 numbers in this code signify the “occupational group” of this job. Per Social Security Ruling 82-41 and 20 CFR 404.1568, for a judge to find that a Claimant could transfer skills to a different related job despite their disabilities, it is strongly preferred that the occupational group of the new job match that of the old job. So for example, a judge is correct to find that an individual could transfer from work as an office nurse to a job as a school nurse, because both positions are in the same occupational group (a school nurse has a DOT code of 075.124-010). The judge should not find this individual as easily able to transfer skills into work as a certified nursing assistant, as this job falls outside of the occupational group (the DOT code for a certified nursing assistant is 355.674-014).
Step 2: Transferable Skills and Lower/Equally Skilled Work
In a second tenet of examining transferable skills, a judge may only find an individual able to transfer skills to another job if that job is of the same or lesser skill level than the prior job. This skill level is represented by the SVP, or Specific Vocational Preparation, which is a number that represents the amount of time required by a typical worker to learn to learn and develop the abilities needed for average performance in a specific job. SVP’s range from 1 to 8, with 8 representing the most highly skilled jobs. So, a judge would could reasonably make a determination that an office nurse could transfer skills to the position of school nurse, as they share an SVP of 7. The judge could not find this individual able to transfer to a nurse anesthetist position, as this position is more highly skilled with an SVP of 8.
Transferable Skills and Work Field Codes
Next, it is preferred that any transferable job match at least one Work Field code, which determines if there is a reasonable match between the tools and machines used in the prior job and in job to which skills may transfer. If an individual was once a coordinator of rehabilitation services, and a judge found that individual could work as an occupational therapist, the first two steps of the analysis discussed above would comply with Social Security Law. Both jobs fall within the same occupational group, and an occupational therapist is defined as a job of lesser skill than a coordinator of rehabilitation services. However, the prior job is classified as having a Work Field code of 295 involving administering skills, while the occupational therapist position has a Work Field code of 294, involving health – caring and medical. Therefore, when considering the transferable skills between these two positions, a Claimant (or preferably their attorney) should be able to argue against transferable skills between these DOT codes.
Step 3: Transferable Skills and MPSMS Codes
Finally, it is preferred that any job title match at least one MPSMS code, which measures similarities in raw materials, products, and subject matter. If an individual was a tank builder before, and a judge found him able to transfer skills to a general carpenter, the first 3 steps of the analysis would satisfy the skill transfer guidelines. However, these two positions do not contain any matching MPSMS codes, and so a skilled attorney should be able to argue against transferable skills between these two job titles.
Step 4: Age Matters with Transferable Skills
Finally, for individuals over the age of 55, the vocational grids state that for individuals who have been disabled since turning 55 or older, if a severe impairment is found that limits them to sedentary work, a judge can only find a skill transfer if there is little vocational adjustment needed in tools, processes, settings, or industry. In this narrow set of facts, a skilled attorney is in an even stronger position to argue that any mismatch in the 4 steps just described should spell out an inability to transfer skills to any other skilled job titles proposed by the VE.
Vocational testimony is a pivotal portion or disability proceedings, and should not be overlooked by Claimants or their counsel. If you have an ALJ hearing in your future, please contact local competent counsel. If you are in the State of Georgia, O’Brien & Feiler attorneys would be pleased to meet about your case at no cost. Should you retain O’Brien & Feiler, you will be represented by disability experts, and will never pay legal fees unless you win your case.