In many cases, whether or not a claimant can prove disability depends on what work restrictions the Social Security Administration believes her to have. Because of its importance, proving these functional limitations is one of the critically important roles carried out by a disability attorney.
Types of Restrictions: Exertional Limitations
In establishing what a claimant can or cannot do, an ALJ creates a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). In an RFC there are two basic categories of restrictions: exertional and non-exertional. Exertional limitations concern primarily how much weight can be lifted and how long you can stand. The Administration uses these exertional limitations as the basis to determine if you are limited generally to sedentary, light, medium, heavy or very heavy work. These classifications become very important because they allow the Administration a simple way of either awarding or denying cases at Step 5 of the Sequential Evaluation process. (For more see previous blogs on the Sequential Evaluation Process).
Types of Restrictions: Non-exertional Limitations
Put simply, non-exertional limitations are any limits other than exertional limits. These could include areas like mental restrictions, environmental restrictions or postural limitations. So, mentally, this could mean your agoraphobia prevents you from doing any work with the public. Or because of chronic asthma, you are unable to work in jobs that expose you to pulmonary irritants like dust or fumes.
Restrictions considered by DDS at the Initial and Reconsideration Levels
As an attorney for the disabled I often find that this is an area where claimants most need a lawyers help in developing limitations. Though I can’t speak for every state's DDS, I can say with regard to Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, the Administration at the Initial and Reconsideration levels don’t deviate much beyond the lists of restrictions that appear on their preapproved checklists.
Basically, if you have a restriction that doesn’t appear neatly on one of the DDS forms, you will likely not be credited with it.
There are numerous examples that I could give for this, but the most common disabling limits completely omitted from DDS have to do with the need for flexible work schedules or frequent absences. Claimants will often be able to perform some type of work activity, but only if they have an employer that can accommodate the demands of their illnesses.
For instance, I have had many claimants who must see 4-5 different specialists on a regular basis to control their symptoms. This means, practically speaking, that this person would have to leave the worksite early or come in late multiple times a month. They would also have numerous days when they can’t come to work at all. In the real working world, this poses a major problem for employers, and most will not accommodate these restrictions. The reliability of an employee is essential, and the need for flexible work schedules or allowance for frequent sick days or more frequent breaks is often restrictions that make a claimant unemployable. Yet, despite this, at the Initial and Reconsideration levels, the DDS does not even look to see if these restrictions exist.
Restrictions considered by the Administrative Law Judge at Hearing
In contrast to the Initial and Reconsideration levels, the ALJs do not feel bound to squeeze limitations into the sort of cookie-cutter format used by DDS staff. They are open to considering all sorts of restrictions, including the ones detailed above. However, the difficulty arises in how to convince an ALJ to adopt these restrictions. Remember, at DDS, the doctors that considered your file have likely only offered restrictions that fit neatly into its forms. It will likely be necessary to get your doctors to write down the restrictions that you will experience, if you want a judge to adopt them.