North Carolina Social Security disability lawyer explains how Social Security determines your ability to work

Many of my North Carolina disability clients wonder how the Social Security Administration could have denied their application for disability benefits when they clearly are unable to work. The answer often lies in the complicated rules and regulations by which the Social Security Administration determines an applicant’s “ability to work.”

In the language of the Social Security Administration, your “ability to work” is your “residual functional capacity” – that is, your ability to function in spite of the limitations caused by your disability. In making this determination, the Social Security Administration considers your ability to do three levels of work:

Medium, light, and sedentary work

Medium work requires lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds, and standing or walking, off and on, for a total of approximately 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. In most medium-work jobs, standing or walking for most of the day is critical. In addition, to accomplish the heavy lifting that accompanies a range of medium work, frequent stooping and bending is usually required, so flexibility of the knees and torso is important. Finally, medium work requires use of the arms and hands to grasp, hold, and turn objects.

The Social Security regulations define light work as lifting not more than 20 pounds at a time, with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. As with medium work, the full range of light work requires standing or walking, off and on, for approximately 6 hours during the workday. A job is considered “light work” if it involves sitting for most of the time, with some pushing and pulling of arm-hand or leg-foot controls.

Sedentary work is work that involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying small tools or files or similar items. Sedentary work involves a good deal of sitting, with occasional walking and standing (generally not more than 2 hours in an 8-hour day). Good use of the hands and fingers for repetitive tasks is required in most unskilled sedentary jobs.

Proving your disability

Often it is difficult to establish the limited nature of your ability to work in your initial application for North Carolina disability benefits. The state agency decision-makers who review initial applications (and requests for reconsideration) tend to apply specific formulas, found in state agency manuals, to determine a claimant’s residual functional capacity for certain medical impairments. They rarely look beyond the medical findings to consider a person’s actual ability to work and, as a result, tend to treat all disability claimants with similar medical findings the same.

You have a much better chance of proving your disability if you appeal your claim to a hearing before an administrative law judge. Administrative law judges tend to view medical findings as one factor in the residual functional capacity analysis. They view their role as evaluating the entire case, including your testimony and credibility, to determine your individual capacity for work.

How a North Carolina disability attorney can help

An experienced North Carolina disability attorney can help the administrative law judge understand just how limited your ability to work is. For example, I help my southwestern North Carolina disability clients to focus their testimony on the facts that are important to the judge, by asking questions similar to the following:

Sitting, standing, walking

  • How long are you able to sit?
  • How long are you able to stand?
  • How long are you able to walk?
  • How far are you able to walk?
  • Do you walk with an assistive device (e.g., a cane)?
  • Do you sometimes lose your balance?
  • Please give us some examples of your sitting limitations.
  • Please give us some examples of your standing limitations.
  • Please give us some examples of your walking limitations.
  • Must you alternate periods of sitting with periods of walking and/or standing?

Lifting and carrying

  • How much can you lift?
  • How much can you carry?
  • What are some examples of the heaviest items you lift and carry during your day-to-day activities?
  • How does that daily, routine lifting and carrying make you feel?
  • Do you find that you have to rest after you do any lifting or carrying?

Other areas of inquiry

  • Do you have problems with stooping? bending? kneeling?
  • Do you have any difficulty manipulating objects with your fingers or hands?
  • Do you have difficulty using your arms?
  • Is traveling difficult for you?
  • What is a “good” day for you?
  • What is a “bad” day for you?