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In social security disability benefit hearings, administrative law judges often seek the views of vocational experts. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1566(e), 416.966(e); SSA, Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law Manual I-2-5-50 (Aug. 29, 2014). Those experts are professionals under contract with the Social Security Administration to provide impartial testimony in agency proceedings. SSA, Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law Manual I-2-1-31.B.1 and I-2-5-48(June 16, 2016). They must have expertise and current knowledge of working conditions and physical demands of various jobs; knowledge of the existence and numbers of those jobs in the national economy; and involvement in or knowledge of placing adult workers with disabilities into jobs. SA, Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law Manual I-2-1-31.B.1. Many vocational experts simultaneously work in the private sector locating employment for persons with disabilities. When offering testimony, the experts may invoke not only publicly available sources but also information obtained directly from employers and data otherwise developed from their own experience in job placement or career counseling. S.S.R. 00-4p.
Petitioner Michael Biestek, a former construction worker, applied for social security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work due to physical and mental disabilities. The Social Security Administration (SSA) assigned an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to conduct a hearing, at which the ALJ had to determine whether Biestek could successfully transition to less physically demanding work. For guidance on that issue, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding the types of jobs Biestek could still perform and the number of such jobs that existed in the national economy. On cross-examination, Biestek's attorney asked the expert “where [she was] getting [her numbers] from,” and the expert explained they were from her own individual labor market surveys. Biestek's attorney then requested that the expert turn over the surveys. The expert declined. The ALJ ultimately denied Biestek benefits, basing his conclusion on the expert's testimony about the number of jobs available to him. Biestek sought review in federal court, where an ALJ's factual findings are “conclusive” if supported by “substantial evidence,” 42 U. S. C. §405(g). The District Court rejected Biestek's argument that the expert's testimony could not possibly constitute substantial evidence because she had declined to produce her supporting data. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.
Did a vocational expert's refusal to provide private market-survey data upon the applicant's request categorically preclude the testimony from counting as “substantial evidence”?
The court held that where the ALJ relied on a vocational expert’s testimony about the availability of certain jobs in the economy, and where the VE largely based her opinion on private market survey data, the vocational expert’s refusal to provide that data upon the applicant's request did not categorically preclude the VE's testimony from counting as substantial evidence under 42 U.S.C.S. § 405(g). Substantial evidence was more than a mere scintilla and was such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. A categorical rule that the testimony of a vocational expert who refused a request for supporting job availability data could never be substantial evidence was not warranted because the vocational expert’s refusal did not necessarily undercut her credibility or preclude meaningful cross-examination.