Every now and then I see a decision that contains a sentence like this: "The evidence on record does not support a finding of total disability." I find the use of the term "total disability" in an ALJ's decision worrisome, because total disability is not necessary to prevail in a Social Security disability claim under all circumstances.
For example, for a claimant age 53 with past relevant work at the light or medium exertional levels, a finding of "disabled" is appropriate with a sedentary residual functional capacity (assuming, of course, no transferable skills). A sedentary residual functional capacity reflects a substantial work capacity, yet medical-vocational rule 201.14 directs a finding of "disabled" at step 5. So a person can still have a capacity for work, and nevertheless be found disabled under Social Security's rules. That is one reason why legal help is particularly helpful for claimants over age 50.
"Total disability" is a misnomer that, in my view, does not belong in a Social Security disability decision. It is a workmen's compensation term. In that area of law, a worker might be found partially or totally disabled. You also see percentages of disability in VA benefits claims. With Social Security disability however, use of the term total disability is imprecise language at best. There is no partial disability or total disability; you are either disabled under the rules or you are not.
It may seem like a minor point, but legal professionals use precise language for a reason. It tends to avoid misunderstandings. There are already many people who mistakenly believe that Social Security disability requires a total inability to work at any job. It does not, and we should not further that misconception by using language that suggests otherwise.