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An individual’s Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) may play a critical role in his or her Social Security disability claim. Your residual functional capacity is the most you can do despite the limitations caused by your impairments and any related symptoms such as pain.  These limitations can affect what you can do in a work setting.  

To understand RFC, a little background is helpful. The SSA uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether or not an adult is disabled under the Social Security Act.  At step one, SSA considers work activity. If an individual is currently performing “substantial gainful activity,” SSA will find that he or she is not disabled.  At step two, SSA considers the medical severity of impairment(s). If an adult does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last at least a year, then the candidate will not qualify as disabled.

At step three, SSA will again consider the medical severity of the applicant’s impairment(s). If the individual has an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of SSA’s listings, then the candidate will be found disabled.  However, if an impairment(s) does not meet or equal a listing, the SSA must then determine the individual’s RFC before moving on to steps four and five.  This is because SSA uses RFC in evaluating whether or not someone can perform “past relevant work” (step four) or any other work given the person’s age, education, and past relevant work (step 5).

How Your RFC Is Determined

In order to determine an individual’s RFC, a disability claims examiner from Disability Determination Services (DDS), an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), or other decision-maker will consider all relevant evidence in the disability claim.  This includes not only an individual’s medical records, but statements from doctors concerning his or her limitations.  SSA will also examine descriptions and observations of limitations caused by impairments—such as pain and fatigue—that  the applicant and friends, neighbors, and others familiar with the applicant may provide.   

Physical abilities. To determine physical RFC, SSA will assess the nature and extent of physical limitations and then determine the candidate’s RFC for work activity on a regular and continuing basis.  SSA will consider ability to perform certain physical demands of work such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, or other physical functions.  Other physical demands of work include  manipulative or postural functions, such as reaching, handling, stooping or crouching. Limitations in these area may reduce the individual’s ability to do past work and other work.

Mental abilities. A candidate’s mental RFC will be determined by a psychologist or psychiatrist from SSA.  On the mental RFC form, the examiner may refer to mental symptoms such as poor concentration, low energy, or other cognitive deficits.  Limitations in understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions, and in responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work pressures in a work setting, may reduce the claimant’s ability to do past work or any other work.  

Other abilities.  Some medically determinable impairment(s), such as skin impairment(s), epilepsy, impairment(s) of vision, hearing or other senses, and impairment(s) which impose environmental restrictions (such as sensitivity to heat caused by multiple sclerosis), may cause limitations and restrictions which affect other work-related abilities.

Total limiting effects.  SSA will consider the limiting effects of all impairment(s)—even those that are not severe—in determining an applicant’s residual functional capacity. Pain or other symptoms may cause limitations in functioning beyond that which can be seen on an MRI or a blood test.  For example,  someone with a low back problem may be able perform what is called medium work, such as lifting up to 50 pounds occasionally through an eight hour day. However, another person with the same disorder, because of pain, may not be able to lift more than 20 pounds.  In assessing the total limiting effects of an applicant’s impairment(s) and any related symptoms, SSA will consider all medical and nonmedical evidence.

Disability Claim: How Residual Functional Capacity Is Utilized

Once physical or mental RFC has been assessed, the SSA decision-maker will use this information to decide whether an applicant can do past relevant work at step four.  This decision-maker will look at work experience over the past 15 years to determine what kind of work the candidate knows how to perform.  For instance, if the individual has had office jobs in the past, SSA may find that he or she should be able to resume this type of work if the applicant is able to sit and does not have any psychological limitations that would prevent him or her from performing this skilled or semi-skilled work.  

If an individual cannot resume a previous type of work, the SSA decision-maker will then use the RFC to determine what types of occupations—if any—the claimant may be able to perform. When making this assessment, the decision-maker will may take education level, skills, and age into account.

If you are a caregiver, family member, or friend who is helping a loved one file a Social Security disability claim, it’s highly advisable to consult with a Chicago disability lawyer about the case. A disability attorney will be able to help you ensure that your exhibit file is thorough and complete, and work with you and the claimant to secure RFC forms from a physician to boost the likelihood that the disability claim will be successful.

We Can Help.

If I can shed any further light on these issues, or if you have any other questions about Social Security disability benefits or any other legal matter, please contact me.

I am also available to present an in-service to you and your co-workers at your location to discuss these and other issues.

If there is a topic or question you would like me to discuss in a future newsletter, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.