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What Is a Residual Functional Capacity Assessment — and How Does It Affect Your Disability Benefit Claim?

When you’re injured on the job or suffer a work-related illness, you may receive workers’ compensation benefits based on your medical costs and on the amount of work and income you expect to lose.  You may also qualify for Social Security Disability benefits if your illness or injury has lasted, or is expected to last, one year or longer.  The Social Security Administration (SSA) follows a process to evaluate your severity of disability and the effects of your illness or injury. They complete this process through a residual functional capacity assessment.

What Is an RFC?

The residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment is meant to help evaluate whether you can return to your previous job or take another job with your current level of functioning. If an RFC assessment shows that you can return to your current job, you’re expected to return to work at full capacity and your claim for SSD benefits will be denied.

If the disability examiner conducting the assessment finds that you should be able to do another job within your functional limits, your claim will also be denied. The disability examiner will use medical records and any information provided by your doctor to fill out RFC forms and make decisions.

What Is a Physical RFCiStock_000021459457_Large_800x533

A physical RFC assesses your physical abilities required to perform work activities. A disability examiner will complete a physical RFC assessment to determine your RFC exertional level, which will fall into one of five categories:

  • Sedentary work
  • Light work
  • Medium work
  • Heavy work
  • Very heavy work

Your RFC exertional level determines how much you can lift or carry and what kinds of tasks you can complete on the job. This information is important when determining benefit eligibility, because the SSA uses special guidelines (called GRID rules) based on these exertion levels. Your exertional level will be used to determine whether you qualify for disability benefits by comparing your exertion levels to your current employment and other employment options.  Depending on your exertion level and your age, you may also be awarded or denied benefits.

What Is a Mental RFC?

If you have suffered trauma, mental illness, or emotional difficulty, you will be given a mental RFC assessment to evaluate the severity of your mental or emotional condition. There are no SSA RFC GRID rules for mental health limitations. Instead, your current mental and emotional status will be compared to that needed to perform your past work and any other job. Based on this comparison, a decision will be made about what jobs you may still be able to perform.


In addition to the findings of mental RFC and physical RFC assessments, a disability examiner may report certain limitations or restrictions which could affect your ability to do your job. For example, if you qualify for light work but medical source statements from your doctor confirm that you require frequent rest breaks or absences due to your health impairment, this will be considered a non-exertional limitation.  Non-exertional limitations may mean that you qualify for benefits even if your exertional level is similar to the exertional level needed for your past job.

In addition to physical limitations, there may be RFC mental limitations noted on your assessment. For example, you may not be able to remember instructions or you may have difficulties understanding tasks. If a medical source statement confirms this, you may qualify for benefits under social security RFC grid rules.

If you believe Social Security RFC grid rules are being applied incorrectly in your case, or if you disagree with the findings of your RFC assessment, contact the law office of Lisa M. Ritacco. Our legal team has served clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in cases where benefits were wrongfully denied. Contact our team today to learn the facts about safeguarding your rights.