Social Security's Mistakes About Your Job Gets Your Disability Application Denied

You need to explain exactly what you did in your last job to get Social Security to make the right decision.

By , J.D. University of Baltimore School of Law
Reviewed by Diana Chaikin, Attorney Seattle University School of Law
Updated 6/24/2024

If Social Security denies you disability benefits, the agency will send you a letter that explains why you were turned down. It is important that you read the decision letter carefully because it will explain the reason for the denial. Understanding why you were denied can help you address, and hopefully correct, any errors the Social Security Administration (SSA) may have made when you appeal.

Here are some common mistakes that Social Security makes when deciding a claim and some ways you or your attorney can address them.

The SSA Says You Can Still Do Your Old Job

If the SSA decides you can still do your old job despite your condition, you will be turned down for disability benefits. This decision happens at Step 4 of the disability determination process and is not an uncommon reason for denials.

If you know can't do your prior work but you were denied, the SSA may have made the mistake of thinking you could do your job because you didn't describe your job and its duties fully and accurately. In addition, disability claimants (applicants) often don't provide the right medical evidence to show that they have physical and/or mental limitations that prevent them from doing the duties the old job required.

If you were denied at Step 4, make sure that you submit information with your appeal to accurately describe your old job requirements. For example, if you used to work in a warehouse, be as descriptive as you can in telling the SSA what you did, such as how heavy any boxes were that you had to lift, whether your job required reaching, squatting, bending, or operating heavy equipment, and how many hours during the day you had to sit or stand. Also, consider whether the job title your company used actually reflected what the job was; if not, let the SSA know this and provide the name of a position that more accurately suggests what your job duties were.

Make sure you then submit corresponding medical evidence to show why you can't do these duties any more. The medical evidence you need to give the SSA depends on your particular disability. For example, if you have back problems, make sure you give the SSA records such as MRIs, CT scans, X-rays, and anything else that proves you can't lift, carry, bend, and so forth. You will need to then explain to the SSA how these medical records show you can't do the requirements of your old job.

If you are represented by a disability lawyer, the attorney is skilled at correlating your medical records to your inability to do certain aspects of your old job. Your attorney will also ask you questions at your hearing to make sure the administrative law judge (ALJ) has an accurate understanding of what you did at your old job, and why you can't perform your duties anymore.

For a full discussion of how to show the SSA you can't do your past relevant work, see our article on proving you can't do your prior jobs.

The SSA Says You Have Work Skills That You Don't Have

Your work history is important to your disability claim, not just so the SSA can tell if you can do your old job, but because the SSA will use it to determine what job skills you may have acquired and whether they can be used in another position. This decision, whether you can learn to do other work, is made during Step 5 of the disability process.

When making determinations about your job skills and whether they're "transferable," the SSA is limited to looking at your "past relevant work" (PRW), but only if you did it as it is "generally performed." If the SSA used past work that should not have counted, you or your lawyer need to raise this issue on appeal.

Past Relevant Work

Past relevant work is only work you did within the past five years, that you did long enough to learn, and that you did at the substantial gainful activity level. Generally, performing substantial gainful activity means that you were working full time. The SSA used to review the past 15 years of your employment history in order to determine your past relevant work, but as of June 22, 2024, the agency will only look at your most recent (within five years) jobs.

If the SSA uses a job that doesn't meet these guidelines to make a decision in your case, you must correct the information on your appeal. Your attorney will do this for you if you are represented. If you are at your hearing unrepresented, listen carefully to your work history as the ALJ describes it and make sure to correct the record (respectfully) so that work that isn't PRW isn't taken into consideration. Here are some types of jobs that shouldn't be counted as PRW:

  • work you did more than five years ago
  • work you did very part-time
  • work you did sporadically (for example, seasonal work), or
  • jobs that didn't last very long.

Work as Generally Performed

The SSA can use jobs you did in the past as evidence of what job skills you have only if you did them as they were "generally performed." Similar jobs usually have similar duties and requirements from company to company, so when you give the SSA your job title, the SSA will assume you did your job the way it was generally performed. But if you didn't perform certain tasks of the job as it is usually performed, you didn't gain those particular job skills.

During your hearing, the SSA's witness (called a vocational expert, or VE) will describe your job in the way it is generally performed. If you did your job in a different way, you must tell this to the ALJ and explain how your job responsibilities were different. If you are represented, your attorney will handle this for you.

For example, the position of gas station attendant as it is generally performed includes the following job functions:

  • preparation of daily reports regarding sales of fuel, oil, and accessories, and
  • ordering, maintaining, and stocking inventory.

If you were a gas station attendant but didn't do some of the above job functions, then you didn't do the job as it was generally performed, and it can't be used to decide if you can do other work.

For a full discussion of how to show the SSA you don't have the skills to use at another type of job, see our article on proving you can't do "other" work.

Another type of mistake that Social Security makes is to ignore one or more of the medical conditions you list on your disability application. For information on how to deal with this, continue on to the next page about when Social Security ignores mental illness limitations and non-severe medical conditions.

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