Your Residual Functional Capacity and Your Social Security Disability Claim

If you have a Social Security disability claim, you have probably heard or read about your “residual functional capacity” or, for short, your “RFC.”  In short, your RFC is an assessment of your physical and mental abilities to work.  Social Security evaluates your ability to perform specific functions that are required in all types of work, such as:

  • Sitting
  • Standing
  • Walking
  • Lifting, pushing, and pulling
  • Climbing
  • Kneeling, stooping, and crouching
  • Reaching
  • Handling
  • Fingering
  • Tolerating exposure to temperature extremes, humidity, noise, or workplace hazards
  • Understanding and remembering work instructions
  • Completing tasks
  • Interacting with other people
  • Maintaining good attendance at work and staying on task during work time
  • Adjusting to changes in the workplace

Why does the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluate your RFC?  To find you disabled, Social Security has to find that you are unable to work.  Jobs in the economy are classified based upon exertional level, skill level, and required education level. 

They are further categorized according to the different physical and mental capabilities required to perform them.  Different types of limitations have differing levels of effect on your ability to work in a wide range of jobs.  For example, if you have difficulties using your hands and are found to only occasionally be able to handle or finger, you are likely prevented from doing most jobs because almost all jobs require you to use your hands fairly often. 

Conversely, even if you are completely unable to climb ladders, kneel, or tolerate temperature extremes, Social Security will likely find a broad range of jobs that you would be able to perform in spite of those limitations.

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Probably the most prominent factor in an RFC is your exertional level – how much weight you can lift and how often, and how long you can stand and walk.  Jobs can be considered sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.  These exertional levels can be described as follows:

Exertional level Standing/walking requirements (total per eight-hour day) Sitting requirements (total per eight-hour day) Occasional (up to 1/3 of the day) lifting requirements Frequent (up to 2/3 of the day) lifting requirements
Sedentary Up to 2 hours 6 hours 10 pounds Small objects
Light 6 hours 2 hours 20 pounds 10 pounds
Medium 6 hours 2 hours 20-50 pounds 10-25 pounds
Heavy 6 hours 2 hours 50-100 pounds 25-50 pounds
Very heavy 6 hours 2 hours Over 100 pounds Over 50 pounds

As your RFC decreases, so does the number of jobs available in the national economy.  If you are unable to do work even at a sedentary level, Social Security will likely find that you are disabled.  However, if you meet certain requirements, even if Social Security finds that you are able to do sedentary work (or even light work, in some cases), you will be found disabled under Social Security’s Medical Vocational Guidelines, also known as “the grid rules.” 

The SSA recognizes that as people get older, they have more difficulty competing for jobs, especially if they have a limited education or do not have recent experience working a sedentary job.

The grid rules examine a claimant’s physical RFC, age, level of education, prior work experience, and transferability of job skills to determine whether a finding of disability should be made. 

The Grid Rules can be a little confusing, but in essence they establish a framework to analyze an individual’s ability to find work based on factors that can diminish the number of jobs in the economy.  In simple terms, a claimant who is over fifty years old with a limited education and unskilled work experience has much more difficulty finding a job than a younger individual with similar physical limitations.  The grid rules recognize that, and in some situations will direct a finding that the older claimant is disabled but the younger is not. 

There are certainly other factors that come into play with the grid rules, and you should contact the SSA and/or a Social Security disability attorney to discuss how your claim may fit under the Medical Vocational Guidelines.

It should be noted not all cases are won or lost based on the Medical Vocational Guidelines.  Your medical condition might be severe enough to meet or equal one of Social Security’s listings in its Listing of Impairments without an analysis of your functional limitations.  Also, if you suffer from a mental disorder such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety, you may not have the ability to concentrate or focus long enough to perform work on a continuous basis regardless of your physical abilities. 

You might have a condition such as Crohn’s disease or migraines that force you to miss too much work to be able to maintain full time employment.

As you can see, there are many ways to analyze a Social Security claim.  Each claim is different, and many factors can come into play.  In my experience, it is very important to provide all of the relevant documentation to the SSA and make sure they know about all of your physical and mental limitations so they can make an informed decision about whether your condition qualifies for disability payments.

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