Supremes to Tackle Expert Testimony in Disability Cases

(CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether a vocational expert’s testimony in a disability case constitutes evidence of other jobs available to an injured worker when the expert didn’t provide underlying data to support their testimony.

Michael Biestek spent most of his career working as a carpenter and laborer in construction jobs. In addition to a year of college, he received vocational training as a bricklayer and carpenter.

He stopped working in 2005, claiming he suffered from degenerative disc disease, Hepatitis C and depression.

Biestek’s application for disability benefits, which alleged a disability onset date of October 2009, was initially denied by the Social Security Administration in 2010. He challenged the decision but was denied review by the SSA’s appeals council.

He then appealed to the district court, which remanded the case to the SSA based on its finding that the administrative law judge did not obtain medical-expert testimony or “pose a sufficiently specific hypothetical to the vocational expert,” according to court records.

After another hearing, the administrative law judge found that Biestek was disabled beginning on his 50th birthday – May 4, 2013 – but that he was not disabled before that date.

Biestek appealed again, but the district court affirmed the administrative law judge’s decision in full. He then took his case to the Sixth Circuit.

The Cincinnati-based appeals court also affirmed, finding that substantial evidence supported the administrative law judge’s decision.

The three-judge panel rejected Biestek’s argument that a hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert in the case about weight restrictions “did not fairly portray Biestek’s limitations as supported by the objective evidence.”

“The ALJ not only incorporated a limit on weight lifting into her hypothetical, she was even more restrictive than [the expert],” U.S. Circuit Judge Deborah Cook wrote for the Sixth Circuit. “The ALJ asked the vocational expert if jobs would be available for someone who ‘could not lift more than five pounds at a time.’ Overall, the ALJ adequately addressed the ultimate issue—Biestek’s ability to lift up to ten pounds of weight.”

In a petition for a writ of certiorari filed in February with the U.S. Supreme Court, Biestek argued that the SSA was wrong to deny his application for disability benefits dating back to 2009 because the vocational expert refused to disclose data to back up testimony that Biestek could occasionally squat and lift objects weighing up to 10 pounds.

“When requested by Mr. Biestek, the vocational expert declined to produce the data and analyses underlying her conclusions, citing ‘the confidentiality of her files.’ The ALJ refused to require the expert to produce this information, even in a redacted form,” the petition states. “The ALJ then denied Mr. Biestek disability benefits for the full time-period specified in his application, finding based on only the expert’s testimony that Mr. Biestek could have secured certain forms of employment for a limited period of time.”

Biestek also noted a circuit split in his petition. He said the Sixth Circuit’s reliance on the expert’s testimony without supporting data aligned with decisions from the Second and Ninth Circuits, but goes against a Seventh Circuit decision.

On Monday, the nation’s highest court agreed to take up the case and decide whether a vocational expert’s testimony can be considered substantial evidence of other work available to disability applicants like Barnes when the expert did not provide requested data to support their testimony.

Per their custom, the justices did not comment on their decision to hear Biestek’s appeal. Oral arguments in the case are expected in the fall, when the Supreme Court begins its next term.

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