Supreme Court to hear Social Security Disability case this fall

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is available when qualifying U.S. workers become totally disabled from working. The Social Security Administration determines whether applicants are disabled based on a combination of their medical information and an assessment of their realistic job prospects, considering their disability. That assessment is typically performed by a vocational expert.

If a vocational expert determines that the applicant’s disability would not prevent them from getting certain jobs and the applicant disagrees, should the applicant be allowed to examine the data the expert used to come to that conclusion? If the expert won’t share their underlying data, should the conclusion stand?

This is basically the question the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear in the upcoming fall term. The case involves a carpenter and laborer who stopped working in 2005 due to Hepatitis C, degenerative disc disease and depression. He applied for SSDI in 2009 and was turned down in 2010 by the Social Security Administration (SSA). His initial appeal to the SSA’s appeals council was rejected.

He won a second appeal, which sent the case back to the SSA. On this second consideration, the SSA determined that the man had become disabled in 2013, not in 2009 or earlier.

He continued to appeal and a federal appellate panel upheld the SSA’s 2013 ruling. However, it did say that testimony by a vocational expert didn’t portray the man’s physical limitations fairly.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, the man raised the issue of the vocational expert’s underlying data. He had tried to obtain the data, but the expert had refused to produce it based on “the confidentiality of her files.” It is unclear why her files should be held confidential, especially from their subject, but the expert refused to produce the background data even in redacted form.

The disabled man asserts that the SSA declined to date his disability back to 2009 based only on the testimony of the vocational expert. In order to obtain the relief he is requesting, the man argues, he needs to be able to effectively challenge the findings of the vocational expert but cannot do so because she won’t release the underlying materials.

He noted that the Second, Sixth and Ninth federal circuits have ruled that such experts need not release the underlying data in order for their conclusions to be relied upon by SSA judges. However, the Seventh Circuit ruled the opposite way. This creates what is called a “circuit split,” which is one factor the Supreme Court takes into account when deciding whether to hear cases.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on the issue this fall.

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