Getting Disability With a Mental RFC for "Less-Than-Unskilled" Work

If you don't have all of the mental abilities required for simple, unskilled work, Social Security should find you disabled.

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If you can't meet the basic mental demands for unskilled work, such as cleaner, fast food line worker, parking lot attendant, or construction laborer, Social Security may find you disabled regardless of your physical abilities, age, education, or work experience.

To assess whether or not you can do even simple, unskilled work, the Social Security Administration (SSA) looks for whether you've had a "substantial loss" of abilities. The SSA does not exactly define substantial loss, but if you are "markedly limited" in one of four main areas of mental function (discussed below), you should meet this requirement. Having a marked (very severe) limitation in one of these areas would mean you are capable of "less than unskilled work," which is the same thing as saying there is no work you can do, and you will be found disabled.

Whether you have limitations in any of the four areas of function will be addressed in your mental RFC. The limitations a disability claim examiner or medical consultant will assign to each area is a matter of medical judgment, derived from your medical records. So it's important that your psychiatrist or psychology submit information on your mental limitations and their severity. Your doctor can use our mental RFC form for this purpose; you'll see that it includes all of the mental abilities mentioned below.

If, rather than having one area assessed as markedly limited, you have moderate limitations in two or three areas, or a combinations of moderately limited and not significantly limited ratings, the disability claims examiner, vocational analyst, or judge will exercise their judgment to determine whether there is any unskilled work you can do. Just as there are no medical-vocational rules for a "less than sedentary" physical RFC, there are no medical-vocational rules for a less than unskilled work mental RFC. (In fact, because a less than unskilled RFC is below the lowest medical-vocational rule classification, receiving one suggests that you should have met one of the disability listings for mental disorders and that an RFC was never needed in the first place.)

Areas for Assessing Mental Function

The four areas below include the basic abilities needed for any job.

Understanding and Memory

The SSA evaluates the following areas of understanding and memory function:

  • remembering locations and work-like procedures, and
  • understanding and remembering very short and simple instructions.

If you are markedly limited in one of these abilities, you should be found disabled.

Sustained Concentration and Persistence

The SSA evaluates your ability to do the following related to concentration and persistence:

  • carry out very short and simple instructions
  • maintain attention and concentration
  • perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances
  • sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision
  • work in coordination with or proximity to others without being unduly distracted by them
  • make simple work-related decisions, and
  • complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions caused by mental symptoms and perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods.

A markedly limitation in any of these abilities means can't do even simple unskilled work.

Social Interaction

The SSA evaluates your ability to sustain the following social interactions:

  • ask simple questions or request assistance
  • accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors
  • get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes
  • interact appropriately with the general public, and
  • maintain socially appropriate behavior and adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness.

For the last two abilities in this section, having a marked limitation in these skills doesn't necessarily mean there are no jobs you can do, since jobs vary so greatly.


Finally, the SSA evaluates your ability to do the following regarding your ability to adjust to changes:

  • respond appropriately to changes in the work setting
  • be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions, and
  • travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation.

For the last ability in this area, having a marked limitation in this skill doesn't necessarily mean there are no jobs you can do, since jobs vary so greatly.

Statements From Your Treating Psychiatrist or Psychologist

The SSA is supposed to accept your treating doctor's opinion regarding your functional abilities, as long as that opinion is consistent with the evidence in your file. If the SSA does not accept that opinion, the RFC must contain a careful explanation of why not, and explain the conclusions that differ from the treating source's conclusions or your allegations.

In addition to the RFC rating areas described in this section, the Social Security mental consultant must complete what is called a Psychiatric Review Technique Form (PRTF). This document is based on diagnostic categories of mental disorders and is supposed to serve as sort of a checklist to help the person assessing the mental RFC (such as Social Security psychologist, psychiatrist, or judge) be sure he or she has considered all relevant medical evidence. Possible improper completion of your mental RFC or PRTF is something you or your disability lawyer should look for if you are reviewing your file and planning an appeal. Especially look for opinions expressed on these documents that are not backed up by evidence in your file.

This article was based on an excerpt from Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability, by David Morton, M.D., a former Chief Medical Consultant for Social Security.

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