The central purpose of an Administrative Law Judge disability hearing in a Social Security disability claim is to determine the claimant’s “residual functional capacity” or RFC. Residual functional capacity is your capacity to perform work-related activities given your physical and mental limitations. In other words, it is the most activity you can still do after considering the effects of the limitations that affect your ability to perform work-related tasks. More specifically, residual functional capacity is the most activity you can still do on a regular and continuing basis. Regular and continuing basis means eight hours a day, five days a week, or an equivalent work schedule.
All jobs require both physical and mental activities. Physical demands include such actions as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, and stooping. Mental demands include, for example, the ability to respond appropriately to supervision and to co-workers. Physical and mental limitations resulting from your impairments may affect your residual functional capacity. For example, if you suffer from arthritis and can only stand and walk two hours out of an eight hour day, then your residual functional capacity would prevent you from working at a job that required you to stand and walk more than two hours out of an eight hour day. Likewise, a poor ability to maintain attention and concentration might limit your competence to sustain a competitive job. The Social Security Administration must consider the combined effects of all of your impairments. For instance, if you suffer from depression and from arthritis, the Social Security Administration will consider the effects of both impairments together in determining your residual functional capacity.
The Administrative Law Judge will determine your residual functional capacity based on your medical records and your testimony at the hearing. In many cases the judge will rely on the opinion of your treating doctor. Our firm has Medical Assessment forms geared specifically to the determination of residual functional capacity. We make those forms available to the treating physicians of our clients. Having a treating doctor complete an Assessment form indicating what you can and cannot do is often the deciding factor at a hearing.
If the judge determines that you retain the residual functional capacity to perform your “past relevant work” (one of your old jobs), you will not be found to be disabled. Past relevant work is defined as work which you performed within the last 15 years before the beginning date of your disability. If you cannot perform your past relevant work then the judge will determine whether you retain the residual functional capacity to perform the requirements of other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
Jobs are broken down according to exertional requirements, and are classified as either sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy. Sedentary jobs are essentially desk jobs. Many times the outcome of your hearing will depend on whether or not your residual functional capacity would allow you to perform sedentary level work. A telemarketing position, for example, would likely be classified as sedentary. Sedentary jobs require the ability to lift at least ten pounds at a time occasionally, and at least five pounds frequently. Even though sedentary jobs typically are desk jobs, and mostly require sitting, a certain amount of standing and walking is generally necessary to perform the job. A job is sedentary if standing and walking is only occasionally required or is generally required no more than two hours in an eight hour work day.
Many people applying for Social Security disability benefits have difficulty sitting for extending periods of time. That limits their ability to perform sedentary level work. In addition, it is important to remember that residual functional capacity is your remaining ability to work eight hours a day, five days a week. Many times people are able to work a couple of days a week, but they would be unable to actually work at a full-time job.
Residual functional capacity, therefore, is the most activity you can still do eight hours a day, five days a week. It takes into consideration not only your ability to get a job but also your ability to keep a job. For example, a person who suffered from severe headaches that left him or her bed-ridden for five days a month would generally lack the RFC to maintain competitive employment. This is the case even if they are perfectly fine the other 25 days of the month. The reason is simple: no employee is likely to remain employed for any length of time if they are calling in sick five days a month.
To summarize, residual functional capacity is essentially the key to proving disability.