Being Denied Disability Benefits Because You Can Do Sit-Down Work

Social Security can often deny disability benefits if it thinks you can work at a sit-down job that doesn't require previous job skills.

By , J.D. University of Missouri School of Law

Many disability applicants are surprised to learn that their disability claims have been denied even though Social Security agrees that they're unable to return to any of their past jobs. That's because Social Security may still decide, at Step Five of its five-step sequential evaluation, that an applicant has the capacity to perform other jobs that exist in the United States. For example, even if you've worked most of your life in heavy, physically demanding occupations, Social Security may find that you're not disabled because you can do an unskilled, sit-down job.

(If you haven't applied for disability yet, you may first want to consider whether there are any sit-down jobs that you could do despite your impairments and limitations, perhaps with the help of special accommodations.)

Proposed Sit-Down Jobs

Often when Social Security denies a disability claim at Step Five (whether you can do other work), Social Security notifies the applicant he or she could perform an unskilled, sedentary occupation like "surveillance system monitor," "microfilm processor," or "telephone quotation clerk." Social Security finds these jobs in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a largely obsolete compendium of vocational information originally produced by the Department of Labor. As an example, here is the DOT description for the position of Telegraph-Service Rater, an unskilled and sedentary (and probably now obsolete) position.

Telegraph-Service Rater, DOT Code 214.587-010: Counts number of words in telegrams dispatched from telegraph office, consults rates in rate book, and marks charges on duplicates of messages for use in billing customers.

Most occupations in the book have not been updated in at least 20 years, and many entries, like the one shown above, haven't changed since 1977. Social Security's reliance on such an out-of-date reference material is a frequent source of frustration for disability attorneys and applicants alike. Many of the listed jobs don't even exist anymore because of advances in technology. Others are available only in small numbers, and rarely near the applicant's hometown. Unfortunately, Social Security doesn't often consider whether these positions are actually available or whether any firms are hiring. Thus, Social Security's exercise of finding "other work" for a disability applicant is much more theoretical than practical.

Contesting Proposed Jobs at an Appeal Hearing

At many disability hearings, the Administrative Law Judge will ask a Vocational Expert (VE) to provide testimony based on the DOT about what jobs individuals with particular impairments could do. It is extremely important to have an experienced disability attorney on your side to cross-examine the VE and to point out the many flaws of the DOT and/or to question the VE on the number of proposed jobs that are actually available.

You should also work with your attorney to make sure that the medical evidence in your case establishes that you're unable to perform even unskilled, sedentary work so that your case is not denied at Step Five.

Limitations That Prevent Unskilled, Sedentary Work

Unskilled, sedentary jobs are the least demanding type of employment in the DOT. However, Social Security will usually find that you cannot physically perform even unskilled, sedentary work if you're limited in any of the following ways:

  • must elevate legs while seated
  • must recline or assume a lying down position during the day
  • cannot crouch, stoop, or bend
  • severely limited in use of the dominant hand
  • unable to sit for six to eight hours, or
  • must lie down and/or sleep during the day due to fatigue.
Similarly, if you have mental or psychiatric issues and you have the following limitations, you are probably not capable of the demands of unskilled, sedentary work:
  • cannot follow short, simple instructions
  • cannot interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers
  • cannot maintain attention and concentration for extended periods
  • unable to maintain basic standards of cleanliness and hygiene
  • cannot handle work stresses
  • will miss two or more days of work per month for medical reasons, or
  • will be off-task for more than 15% of a workday, excluding customary breaks.

Because the above limitations prevent someone from doing even the least demanding work, giving Social Security persuasive evidence that you have one or more of these limitations can truly "make or break" a disability case. If you think you have one or more of these limitations, you or your attorney should ask your doctor or mental health provider to make sure they are recorded in your medical records. Submit the medical records documenting these limitations to Social Security well in advance of your hearing. It can help to make sure that Social Security knows about the limitations on your activities of daily living as well.

Even better, you or your attorney should ask your doctor to complete an RFC form or write a brief letter regarding all of your work-related limitations. (RFC stands for residual functional capacity, and means the most you can do in spite of your physical and mental impairments.) Social Security tends to give significant weight to the opinions of treating doctors, so it's very important to have your doctor submit detailed documentation on what you can and can't do and any accommodations you would need during the day to be able to work.

The Medical-Vocational Grid Rules

In some circumstances, Social Security can't find that you must learn another line of work; in other words, if you can't do your prior job, you must be found disabled, even if you could physically and mentally handle a sit-down job. Social Security's Medical-Vocational Grid Rules control whether or not Social Security must consider whether you can do other work.

At the beginning of Step Five of the sequential evaluation, Social Security uses the grid rules to determine whether, based on your age, education, work experience, and RFC, you should be found disabled because you can't be expected to adjust to other work—or whether Social Security must consider whether your limitations allow you to do any other jobs.

For example, the grid rules dictate that a 50-year-old individual with limited education (11th grade or less), an unskilled work history, and a sedentary RFC will be found disabled. For a 55-year-old with a high school diploma, unskilled work history, no transferable skills, and a sedentary RFC, the grid rules also direct a finding of "disabled."

Even if the grid rules direct a finding of "not disabled" in your case, as they do in most cases, Social Security must still determine whether your RFC prevents you from doing unskilled, sedentary work. If you have any non-exertional impairments (for example, your depression would cause you to be absent from work, or your ADHD prevents you from maintaining concentration for extended periods), Social Security will consider those impairments in deciding whether you can work.

Getting Legal Help

Contesting Social Security's determination that you can do simple, sit-down work is not easy to do on your own, whether you need to challenge a VE's testimony at hearing or convince an ALJ that you have a limitation that prevents even unskilled, sedentary work. There is also the possibility of convincing the ALJ that you should fit into a certain grid rule because you are almost a certain age (for instance, 50 or 55) and the seriousness of your limitations warrants treating you as having reached the older age. None of these things are easy to do without an experienced disability attorney; for help, you can arrange a consultation with a disability attorney.

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