Sunday, February 26, 2017

Serial Hypothetical Questions - Makes Cross Impossible

ALJ -- I will now ask you a series of hypothetical questions that will the same age, education, and work experience of the claimant. 

The ALJ goes on to ask anywhere from two to seven hypothetical questions.  Which one, if any, represents the eventual finding that will find its way into the ALJ decision denying the claim for benefits.  Does the ALJ know or have a pretty good idea which one of the hypothetical questions constitutes the most likely residual functional capacity?  Pretty sure that the ALJ has more going on mentally than to have a flaccid notion of which question will reflect the finding. 

How does the representative at the hearing cross-examine the vocational expert about the content of three hypothetical questions, each with the identification of jobs existing in the national economy?  The representative must pick apart the material components of the hypothetical questions, one at a time.  Each construct will take time. 

On occasion, the ALJ will announce that the finding will reflect a reduced range of standing and walking as opposed to the first question that assumed an unlimited standing and walking with normal breaks.  But if the ALJ does not favor the record and the claimant with a statement of which one will constitute the finding, the representative must cross on every question that did not result in a statement from the witness of "no jobs." 

In a civil or criminal trial under and adversarial process, no reasonable attorney would try to confuse the jury or judge with a blast of hypothetical questions to the expert.  The attorney would advocate the key factual finding urged and ask the expert to give an opinion about how that fact impacts the ultimate question of fact.  So why would an ALJ ask serial hypothetical questions? 

Part of that answer rests in the attempt to placate the claimant with the thought that the ALJ will pay the case.  After all, the vocational expert said that the claimant could not work in the third hypothetical question that assumed the limitations described by claimant's testimony.  It dampens any consternation of the claimant that the ALJ didn't listen to the testimony or understand what the claimant said.  The last hypothetical question is the placebo and rarely the ultimate finding of the ALJ. 

The rest of the answer rests in the preclusion of intelligent cross-examination.  The ALJ tries to anticipate the other hypothetical questions that the representative or claimant might ask.  But that wastes time.  The representative can ask the question and no representative needs the ALJ to recast the question into words and phrases that change the tenor of the question.  The ALJ asks one to five questions when none of them reflect the theory of the case; the representative would have asked one question; and now we are out of time. 

And that forms the core of the problem.  When an administrative hearing proceeds on the premise that the ALJ seeks to cross the t's and dot the i's to award the claim, that hearing takes about 15 minutes.  When the hearing proceeds on the premise that the ALJ will deny the claim, that case can and should take an hour and maybe two hours.  Most hearings get scheduled 30 to 45 minutes apart, depending on the ALJ.  When the ALJ dallies through hypothetical questions that have no bearing on the eventual disposition of the case, burning up precious time, the ALJ precludes intelligent examination on the bona fide occupational qualifications of the jobs identified, the statistical methods used for estimating the number of jobs, and what the sources of administrative notice say about jobs and numbers. 

The bottom line is simple.  Don't ask serial questions of the vocational expert.  The ALJ is wasting time, preventing cross-examination, and making the process unwieldy.  If the ALJ really does need or want to build a stick figure, one limitation at a time, then the ALJ should tell the representative or claimant which one should form the focus of the cross-examination.  Making representatives and claimants guess with five minutes left in the hearing does not constitute due process. 


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