Social Security uses a five step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. The five steps must be determined in order, which is why it is called a sequential process.
The first step is to determine if the person has done any substantial gainful activity. If so, they are found “not disabled.” After all, the definition of disability is the inability to do any substantial work activity.
The second step is whether or not the person has a medically determinable “severe impairment(s).” This summary will focus on step 2 of that process. The other steps are to determine if the person’s impairment meets or medically equals one of the Social Security’s listing of impairments, with a specified severity level that is presumed to preclude gainful work activity. If so, the person is found “disabled”. If not, a determination is made if the person can do their prior work activity. If they can, they are found “not disabled.” If they cannot, the last step is to determine if there is any work in significant numbers in the national economy that the person can do.
Appropriately enough, in determining at step 2 whether or not a person has a medically determinable severe impairment, the adjudicator must follow a two-step process. They must first look at the objective medical evidence. Allegations of pain or other symptoms alone, without objective medical evidence of an impairment that is reasonably likely to produce the symptoms, will not meet the burden of proof at step 2.
Symptoms are defined as a person’s subjective complaints such as pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, or nervousness. Objective medical evidence is things such as clinic signs and laboratory findings.
If the adjudicator determines that there is a medically determinable impairment that is reasonably likely to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged, then they must consider the intensity, duration, and functionally limiting effects of the symptoms along with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the file in order to determine whether or not the impairment or combination of impairments is severe. At this stage of the process, the vocational factors of age, education and work experience are not considered, as they are at steps four and five.
In order to determine severity, the adjudicator must look at whether or not the impairment significantly limits the person’s ability to do basic work activities. If the impairment, along with the symptoms, does not more than minimally limit the person’s ability in this respect, it will not be considered severe.
However, if the impairment along with the symptoms will more than minimally affect the person’s ability to do basic work activities, then it is found to be “severe” at step two of the process.
If the adjudicator is unable at step two to determine whether or not an impairment is “severe”, they must go ahead and follow the sequential evaluation process until a determination can be made as to whether or not the person is disabled.
As a practical matter, in my experience, the claimant’s step-two burden is easier to meet than the burden at steps three, four, and five. This is because a person applying for disability benefits almost always has medical evidence of a severe impairment that is likely to produce the symptoms they allege. Whether or not that severe impairment or combination of impairments precludes work activity is a separate consideration.
This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.