Social Security Disability: Functional Aspects of Social Security Hearings - The 5 Step Process




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Attorney licensed in Indiana
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Like most valid and recognized adjudication systems, the SSA's five-step disability determination process is based on the notion of fundamental fairness. Understanding how the five-step process works is crucial; accordingly, two key concepts should be realized: first, the analysis is sequential, meaning that the claimant cannot proceed from one step to another until it is determined that he is disabled; and second, the analysis is a process, meaning that it requires consideration of many elements, consisting of both medical and vocational evidence. In order for the process to begin, a claimant must first be eligible. If a claimant is rendered unable to continue employment at any time before age sixty-five, the claimant may be eligible for DIB as long as the claimant meets the SSA's standard for disability and is "deemed 'insured' because [the claimant has] worked the required number of quarters for a person [of her] age and has contributed to the [SSA] system."  Once the applicant is deemed eligible, the SSA next determines whether the applicant is disabled under the five-step sequential evaluation process. 
Step 1. The first of the five-step sequential evaluation process is to determine whether the individual is engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). If the individual is working and the work meets the criteria of SGA, then the individual is not disabled and the determination process ceases; however, if the claimant meets the SGA requirement, then the process continues.
Step 2. The second step is to determine whether the individual has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe. If the individual does not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe, the SSA finds the individual not disabled, and the determination process ceases.
Step 3. The third step is to determine whether the individual's impairment meets the severity of an impairment listed in the Social Security Regulations.  If it does, the individual is deemed disabled.
Step 4. If it does not, the SSA proceeds to step four, which is to determine whether the individual's impairment(s) prevent(s) her from doing her past relevant work ("PRW"), considering her residual functional capacity ("RFC").  If the individual's impairment(s) prevent(s) her from doing her PRW, the SSA proceeds to the last of the five-step process.
Step 5. In this last step, the SSA determines whether a significant number of jobs that the individual is able to perform exists in the national economy, considering her RFC together with the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience. If a significant number of jobs that the individual can perform exists in the national economy, the SSA finds that the individual is not disabled under Social Security Regulations; if a significant number of jobs that the individual can perform does not exist in the national economy, then the SSA rules that the individual is disabled. When determining disability, the SSA does not consider whether the individual filing for DIB would actually be hired if she applied for work; in other words, factors such as unemployment rates or job availability in the claimant's hometown are not considered. Instead, the Social Security Regulations declare that the test for disability takes into account only the individual's ability to complete work. 

Additional Resources

To read more, please follow the below link to my article published in the Valparaiso University Law Review.
 

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