The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the Social Security

Administration’s method of determining whether an employee

is disabled under the Social Security Act.

After an elevator operator’s job was eliminated and the

operator applied to the SSA for disability benefits, the

SSA denied benefits because an administrative law judge

did not find the operator “disabled” finding instead

that her medical condition did not prevent her from

operating an elevator.

However, the ALJ reached that conclusion without determining

whether that particular kind of work existed in significant

numbers in the national economy. The operator appealed, a

federal trial court affirmed, but the United States Court

of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. Finding that

various federal circuits disagreed, the Supreme Court

granted a hearing to determine whether the SSA’s methods

were reasonable.

Below are some details of the decision.

The SSA employs a five step test to determine whether an

employee is disabled under the Social Security Act: first,

the agency determines whether the employee is engaged in a

gainful activity; second, the employee must demonstrate a

severe impairment to work; third, the agency compares the

impairment to a list of impairments the agency maintains

that are presumptively disabling; fourth, if the employee’s

condition is not on the list, SSA determines whether the

employee can do the same work the employee could perform

before the condition arose, and fifth, if the employee

survives the forth step, the SSA will look to see whether

the employee is capable of performing other jobs existing

in significant numbers in the national economy.

The high court held that SSA, as it did in this case, may

stop at step four in a disability determination. If an

employee is still able to do the work the employee did

prior to the development of the employee’s medical

condition, the SSA is not required to look to the national

economy, and may find an employee not disabled, the court

found.

Barnhart v. Thomas, No. 02-763, November 12, 2003 – Get Document