In the 1990s a claimant, Ms. Pauline Thomas, applied for disability due to heart disease, back impairments and other medical conditions. She was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels of adjudication and applied for a hearing. The Administrative Law Judge denied her case at hearing on the grounds that she had the capacity to do her prior work as an elevator operator. This was a “step four” decision.
Social Security uses a five step sequential process for determining disability. If a decision of “disabled” or “not disabled” can be made at any step, the inquiry need not proceed any further.
Step one considers whether the claimant had done any substantial work for profit since the alleged disability. If the person is doing such substantial gainful activity (SGA), they are found not to be disabled. If not, the inquiry proceeds to step two.
Step two considers whether the claimant has one or more medically determinable severe impairments that more than minimally limits his or her ability to do basic work activities. If not, the claimant is found not disabled. If so, the inquiry proceeds to step three.
Step three considers whether the claimant has one of the listed impairments, which are presumed to be disabling. If so, the person is found disabled. If not, the inquiry proceeds to step four.
Step four considers whether or not the claimant, considering her age, education, prior work experience, and medical conditions, can do one of her prior jobs. If so, she is found not disabled. If not, the inquiry proceeds to step five.
Step five considers whether or not the claimant, considering her age, education, prior work experience, and medical conditions, can do any work existing in significant numbers in the national economy (either in one region or several regions of the country). If so, the claimant is found not to be disabled. If not, the claimant is found to be disabled.
The claimant appealed the Judge’s decision, based on the argument that there were precious few jobs as an elevator operator. She argued that the step four decision requires that the claimant’s prior work that she could do must exist in significant numbers in the national economy. The case was fought all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, held that step four does not require that a claimant’s prior work exist in significant numbers in the national economy. The Court reasoned that because the relevant statute was ambiguous, that deference must be given to the agency’s interpretation of the statute, as long as that interpretation is reasonable. The Court cited rules of grammar in support of its decision; in particular the rule that “referential and qualifying words and phrases, where no contrary intention appears, refer solely to the last antecedent.” While this rule is not absolute, it gave a reasonable basis to the agency’s interpretation of the statute.
The Court noted that Social Security hearings encompass the largest adjudicative process in the western world. Congress could well have intended the agency’s interpretation, as it allowed for more efficient and streamlined adjudication of cases.
Barnhart v. Pauline Thomas, 540 U.S. 20 (2003).
While the result seems suboptimal to me from the standpoint of making an individualized decision in each case, the statute does seem to support the agency’s interpretation. This Supreme Court case was codified in Social Security Ruling (SSR) 05-01c.
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.