I’m 55 and can’t lift 20 pounds because of a bad back. Why was I denied Social Security disability?

Question: I applied for Social Security disability benefits for back problems (a herniated disk and degenerative disc disease) and was denied. I’m 55 and I’ve been working as a forklift operator for 20 years, but I can no longer do my job because I can’t lift 20 pounds. My friend who is on disability told me that since I’m 55 and my doctor limited me to light work, I’m guaranteed disability benefits.

 Answer: Your friend must be referring to the Social Security’s medical-vocational rules, also known as the “grid rules,” which do say that in some cases you should be found disabled if you are 55 or older and have the capacity for light work only (meaning that you can frequently lift or carry up to ten pounds and occasionally lift up to 20 pounds). However, for Social Security to get to the point in the disability analysis to use the grid rules, the agency first must find that you can’t physically do your old job.

Since you’ve been denied, Social Security may have decided that you can do your old job, in which case you’ll have to appeal the denial and convince a Social Security judge otherwise. Perhaps your claims examiner thought you could do the job because he or she mistakenly believed that a forklift operator doesn’t have to be able to regularly lift 20 pounds. Or, maybe Social Security didn’t agree that your RFC should be for light work even though your doctor thought so. If this is the case – say, Social Security gave you an RFC for medium work — you’ll need to appeal and prove that your RFC should actually be for light work.

First, find out exactly why Social Security denied you so you can decide what arguments you can use. If your denial notice doesn’t include a “technical rationale” (which includes an explanation of your residual functional capacity (RFC) and why you were denied), you should request your file from Social Security so that you can review it. Maybe Social Security agreed you couldn’t do the job of forklift operator but thinks your job skills as a machine operator could be used in other work that doesn’t require lifting. (In that case, the grid rule saying that a 55-year-old restricted to light work should be considered disabled doesn’t apply and you’ll probably need to hire a lawyer to get benefits.)

But let’s assume the explanation in your denial letter or file states you have a light RFC but that you can do your old job. You’ll need to request an appeal and prove that you can’t in fact do your old job. At your appeal hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) will ask you what was required of you at your old job and how your impairment limits you from doing it. The ALJ must compare each requirement of your forklift operator job with the limitations in your RFC. If there is a limitation in your RFC (such as not regularly lifting 20 pounds) that conflicts with even one of the demands of your job (such as needing to lift 20 pounds routinely), the ALJ should find that you can’t do the work. 

The judge will probably request that a vocational expert (VE) attend your hearing to testify whether he or she thinks you can still do your old job. If the expert thinks you can do your past work despite your impairment, and the ALJ agrees, your claim will be denied. If this happens, beware: the VE may have used an inaccurate job title or description to decide you didn’t need to routinely lift 20 pounds as a forklift operator. If so, you’ll need to politely inform the ALJ that you were required to lift 20 pounds, and offer proof of this. (For the vocational expert to be able to say you can do your past job, it must have required only light work, meaning regularly lifting only 10 pounds or less, since you have a light RFC.) To learn more about correcting the VE or judge, see this article on correcting the details of your past work.

If you decide to hire legal representation for your hearing, your disability attorney will know to ask you important details about your work at the hearing, such as how many pounds you had to lift frequently, whether you had to stoop or bend, and whether you were able to a rest when necessary. This way the VE and ALJ will understand your job as you did it as opposed to how “forklift operator” or a similar job title may be listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Once the ALJ and VE know that your job actually required you to lift 20 pounds throughout the day, they will likely agree that you can no longer do your past work. (For more help on this, see this article on proving you can’t do your past work.) Then, your next step will be to get Social Security to agree that the grid rules for advanced age call for you to be found disabled, as your friend indicated.