Whether Social Security decides you can do medium, light, or sedentary work can determine if you get disability

When you apply for disability on the basis of a physical medical impairment, Social Security obtains your medical records and determines how limited you are in your ability to perform normally daily activities. They look at a wide variety of functions, but it always comes down to a rating of sedentary, light, or medium.

To simplify things, if you get a sedentary RFC, it means SSA thinks you can do sedentary work but nothing more than that. If you get a light RFC, it means that SSA thinks you can do light work, but nothing more than that. If you get a medium RFC, it means that SSA thinks you can do medium work but nothing more than that.

Obviously, it will be in the person's best interests to have the most restrictive RFC possible because with more restrictions you are considered to have less of a realistic chance of being able to work. That is why a light RFC makes a case stronger than a medium RFC. A sedentary RFC makes a case stronger than either a light or medium RFC.

With these explanations in mind, I'd like to share a situation that demonstrates, beyond the obvious, why medical records are so important on a disability claim.

A person who applied for disability, had their case looked at, and was past age 55 was given a medium RFC. Look here to see the definition of RFC. A medium RFC means that Social Security believes that the person has the capability of lifing 25 lbs frequently and 50 lbs occasionally. That determination can be made by a judge at a hearing, or if the case is at the application level or reconsideration appeal level, it can be made by a disability examiner.

However, who makes the decision is not the important issue for this example. The point being made is that a claimant, due to their age (past age 55) might have been approved for disablity if the examiner or judge who had looked at the available medical records in the case had instead concluded that they should be given something less than a medium RFC rating; perhaps a light RFC (meaning they could be expected to lift 20lbs occasionally and 10lbs frequently.

Why would a light RFC versus a medium RFC be given? It depends on how severe the person's impairments seem to be. Obviously, a person with more functional limitations would generally be thought capable of doing less. And its not just lifting we are talking about. A person's condition, or conditions, may result in lessened ability to bend, crouch, reach, use fine finger movements, hear, see, tolerate heights, sit or stand beyond a certain amount of time. And those are just a few ways in which a person can be physically functionally limited.

On the mental side, mental conditions (such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, autism, impaired intellect, etc, may affect a person's ability to learn and retain new information, pay attention, and concentrate.

All of these limitations will affect a person's ability to engage in work activity, of course. And that is why Social Security gives RFC ratings for both mental and physical impairments. So that the examiner or judge can decide whether or not a person can go back to their past work, or do any other kind of work.

And this is a clear example of why medical record documentation is so important. It establishes not simply a diagnosis, or a prognosis, but also functional limitations. And functional limitations guide residual functional capacity ratings that direct the outcome of Social Security Disability and SSI disability cases.

The scenario also illustrates how important it is to have a good relationship with your treating physician.

Ideally, you want to have a doctor that has a long (long is always a relative term) and established history of providing medical treatment. This may make it more likely for the doctor to note functional limitations that are associated with your medical or mental condition (or not). It may also make it more likely for the doctor, upon request, to provide a medical source statement or RFC form (different terms for the same thing) that is detailed enough to have a favorable impact on your case.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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