I-2-8-20.Instructions to Decision Writers

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

A. General

The administrative law judge (ALJ) adjudicating the case is responsible for providing an assisting decision writer (DW) with complete, clear, and policy compliant directions. Most importantly, the ALJ needs to include rationale supporting the findings that impact the ultimate conclusion. A DW must have enough information to specifically understand what an ALJ wants to include in the decision and why the ALJ wants that information included.

B. Specific Information to Include in Instructions

As applicable, an ALJ's decision writing instructions will generally:

  • Cite to the pertinent evidence or testimony on which the ALJ relies (specifically noting the exhibits or testimony that support findings and the ultimate conclusion);

  • Provide directions for each step of the sequential evaluation process, identifying the step at which the claim is being allowed or denied;

  • Include instructions relating to the “B” and “C” criteria for mental impairments at steps two and three of the sequential evaluation process;

  • Include any pertinent observations or comments regarding symptoms and why the symptoms are or are not supported by the evidence of record;

  • Explain how the ALJ resolved any conflicts in the record;

  • 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 function by function residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment;

  • Ensure the limitations for each medically-determinable impairment are accounted for in the RFC, especially those that are determined to be “severe”;

  • Ensure the RFC in the instructions matches the RFC given to the vocational expert (VE) at the hearing;

  • Make a finding(s) on applicable issue(s) relating to the claimant's past relevant work and not merely recite the claimant's work history;

  • State the occupations and numbers of jobs as identified by the VE for a step 5 evaluation; and

  • When applicable, include information and rationale about whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to disability. (For applicability and other requirements, see Social Security Ruling 13-2p: Titles II and XVI: Evaluating Cases Involving Drug Addiction and Alcoholism (DAA)).

To help ALJs prepare policy compliant instructions, and to assist with consistency in form and format, ALJs are encouraged to use available tools to draft instructions, such as Decision Writing Instructions (DWI) in the Hearings and Case Processing System (HACPS) the Findings Integrated Templates (FIT) or enhanced FIT instructions.

C. Things to Avoid When Providing Instructions

An ALJ should avoid:

  • Using abbreviations, especially those that are not commonly used;

  • Using ambiguous terms like “moderate” in the RFC;

  • Routinely instructing the DW to listen to the entire hearing recording (but when appropriate, ALJs may direct the DW to where the relevant testimony can be found on the hearing recording);

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

  • Issuing handwritten instructions.


Although ALJs may use legible handwritten instructions, the practice is not optimal because DWs often have difficulty deciphering the instructions and the instructions need to be manually scanned (unlike DWI FIT instructions).