Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Minimal or Superficial Contact with Coworkers and Supervisors -- A Debilitating Limitation

The ALJ finds a limitation to simple, repetitive tasks with limited or no contact with the public, coworkers, or supervisors.  Can that person work?  The answer is "no."

According to the Social Security Administration's regulations, a basic work function includes responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations.  20 CFR §404.1521(b)(5).   So far we have a severe impairment, this person cannot tolerate and cannot respond appropriately to supervisors or coworkers according to the residual functional capacity assessment described by the ALJ.   The Commissioner of Social Security specifically recognizes that limitations in the amount of supervision a person can tolerate constitutes an important part of the rating of the ability to perform the social requirements of work activity.  20 CFR §404.1520a(c)(2).   The ability to respond appropriately to supervision and coworkers is also at the core of a residual functional capacity assessment.  20 CFR §404.1545(c).

So in this hypothetical situation, the ALJ finds a person cannot tolerate coworkers or supervisors, or at most can tolerate limited contact with coworkers or supervisors.  People engaged an unskilled work, or anyone who acts as an employee, must have the ability to interact with coworkers and supervisors unless that person works alone.   The Social Security Administration has a published policy that describes the ability to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work situations as a basic mental demand of competitive, remunerative, unskilled work activity.   POMS DI 25020.010 ¶ A.3.   Later, the policy memorandum states that mental abilities for performing unskilled work includes the ability to work in coordination with our proximity to others without being unduly distracted by them; asking simple questions or requesting assistance; accepting instruction and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors; getting along with coworkers were peers without unduly distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; and responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting.   POMS DI 25020.010 ¶ B.3.

A common theme of this log has stressed that vocational experts will testify to pretty much anything depending on the identity of the person asking them the question.  I call that professional prevarication.

The Social Security Administration deals with the problem of a vocational experts testifying contrary to agency policy.  Social Security Ruling 00-4p.   An ALJ can accept vocational expert testimony that contradicts the DOT or other sources of administrative notice for any reasonable articulated basis.  However, no Social Security Administration adjudicators may accept testimony that is based on underlying assumptions or definitions that are inconsistent with regulatory policies.  Evidence That Conflicts with SSA Policy.   The regulatory policies are explained in POMS.   Social Security Ruling 13-2p.

The forewarned, the ALJ or the attorneys representing the agency before a court will claim that the vocational expert has special expertise that permits them to point to jobs and occupations that do not require interacting with coworkers or supervisors on any significant level.  We do not leave commonsense at the door to the hearing office.  The Social Security Administration adjudicates nearly 3 million disability claims every year.  Based upon that vast experience, the agency publishes POMS and sets out agency policy that an individual who cannot tolerate direction and criticism from supervisors, ask questions of supervisors, or get a passing grade in the "plays well with others" requirement of work activity — that person cannot engage in a function that is critical to performing unskilled work.  A vocational expert may be entitled to her opinion, but she is not entitled to her own national economy.

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