I-2-8-20.Decision Writing Instructions

Last Update: 3/10/16 (Transmittal I-2-167)

A. General

The administrative law judge (ALJ) adjudicating the case is responsible for providing Paralegal Specialists, Hearings Customer Service Specialists, and Attorneys (writers) with policy compliant decision writing instructions (instructions). Instructions qualify as policy compliant only when they are clear, internally consistent, and correctly apply agency policy and procedure. Instructions must include rationale supporting the findings that impact the ultimate conclusions.

Instructions should be complete and self-contained without requiring writers to review external materials such as e-mails and notes stored in other locations, including on local or shared computer drives.

ALJs should strive to keep instructions concise while still meeting the requirements for policy compliant instructions.

B. Information to Include in Instructions

An ALJ's instructions must clearly identify the disposition of the case and the information and evidence required to support the findings and the dispositional outcome. The instructions must state the step at which the claim is being allowed or denied and include findings at each applicable step of the sequential evaluation process. As applicable, an ALJ's decision writing instructions must generally:

  • Address work after the onset date or application date;

  • Identify any medically determinable impairment(s) with indication of severity;

  • Identify any outcome-determinative finding(s) relating to the listings;

  • Include any required “B” and “C” criteria findings at steps two and three of the sequential evaluation process;

  • Include a function-by-function residual functional capacity (RFC) or functional domain assessment:

    • Ensure the RFC contains vocationally specific terms;

    • Ensure the RFC includes work-related limitations to accommodate each medically-determinable impairment, as appropriate, particularly those that qualify as “severe”;

    • Ensure the RFC in the instructions matches the RFC given to the Vocational Expert (VE) at the hearing, or provide an explanation for the discrepancy;

  • Provide guidance on the evaluation of opinion evidence depending on when the claim was filed:

    • For a claim(s) filed before March 27, 2017, state the weight given to opinion evidence;

    • For a claim(s) filed on or after March 27, 2017, state the persuasiveness of the medical opinion(s) and prior administrative medical findings;

  • Include a brief evaluation of the consistency of the claimant's allegations, including any pertinent observations;

  • Identify any past relevant work and transferable skills, and evaluate, as necessary;

  • Identify any occupations and corresponding job numbers for a step five evaluation, when available;

  • Explain how the ALJ resolves any conflicts in the record, including conflicts between VE testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT);

  • Explain how the ALJ responds to objections or procedural issues;

  • When relevant, provide rationale for a later onset or closed period of disability and indicate whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. (See Social Security Ruling 13-2p: Titles II and XVI: Evaluating Cases Involving Drug Addiction and Alcoholism (DAA)); and

  • Provide any other pertinent information the writers need to know, such as whether borderline age is to be applied.

NOTE:

To prepare policy compliant instructions efficiently, with consistency in form and format, ALJs are encouraged to use available electronic tools, such as Decision Writing Instructions in the Hearings and Appeals Case Processing System.

C. Things to Avoid When Providing Instructions

Instructions must be understandable to writers in all offices. To promote consistency and clarity, ALJs should avoid the following:

  • Issuing handwritten instructions;

  • Using uncommon or undefined abbreviations;

  • Including information unnecessary to the disposition of the case;

  • Delegating authority to make findings of fact;

  • Including multiple RFCs unless circumstances require a different RFC, e.g., a later onset decision;

  • Instructing writers to listen to the VE's testimony rather than stating the occupations and corresponding number of jobs in the instructions;

  • Instructing writers to use non-prescribed standardized language in the rationale (HALLEX I-2-8-25);

  • Specifying personal preferences (such as citation format or style requests) other than first or third person; and

  • Citing to case law except in reference to an applicable Acquiescence Ruling (SSR 96-1p).