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Sometimes a prior job is actually more than one job at the same time. You were both a nurse supervisor and performed the duties of an RN. You were both a carpenter and a construction supervisor. These are called composite jobs.

In every disability claim, the SSA must determine (at step 4 of the 5-step sequential evaluation process) whether you have the residual functional capacity to perform your past relevant work. This is where the composite job can cause problems with a claim.

I had a hearing where this issue came up. The work history report listed past relevant work at a homeless shelter as a social services aide, a light exertional job beyond the claimant’s residual functional capacity. At the hearing, the VE had questions about this job, and found that for half of the time (or more) the claimant was simply working in the shelter’s office, doing routine office work. As a result, the VE used two classifications to characterize this job: social services aide and general office clerk.

When the judge gave a hypothetical question to the VE about the claimant’s ability to perform her past relevant work, the VE testified that all of the claimant’s past relevant work would be precluded by the hypothetical, except for the past work as a general office clerk.

I pointed out to the judge that the general office duties were part of a composite job, and not a stand-alone job. All of the duties of that composite job must be considered at step 4, including the more strenuous parts that were not part of the general office clerk duties. The judge asked for authority for my argument, which I provided with a post-hearing brief.

Social Security Ruling 82-61 states “composite jobs have significant elements of two or more occupations and, as such, have no counterpart in the DOT. Such situations will be evaluated according to the particular facts of each individual case.” Social Security must consider all the exertional and nonexertional requirements of a composite job.

There is some good case law on this issue from the Ninth Circuit:

Every occupation consists of a myriad of tasks, each involving different degrees of physical exertion. To classify an applicant’s “past relevant work” according to the least demanding function of the claimant’s past occupations is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Social Security Act. Valencia v. Heckler, 751 F.2d 1082, 1086 (9th Cir. 1985).

See also Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1166 (9th Cir. 2008).

This issue can make the difference between losing a case at step 4 or not. It probably only makes a pivotal difference 1 time in 50 or 100 claims. But as a disability lawyer, you have to know this. Awareness of the composite job issue can make the difference between a client receiving disability benefits and having those benefits denied.