In order to determine whether or not an individual filing for benefits is disabled, Social Security uses a five-step sequential analysis.
Step One requires a determination of whether or not a person has engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since the time they allege they became disabled (the alleged onset date or AOD).
Substantial gainful activity is a term of art, but at its simplest, it means any work activity done for profit in which the individual earns at least $1070 per month. This amount is periodically adjusted.
If the person has engaged in substantial gainful activity, they are typically found “not disabled”. After all, disability presupposes an inability to work.
Step Two requires a determination of whether or not a person has a medically determinable “severe” impairment. This step is generally satisfied where the person has a medical diagnosis that results in more than minimal limitations in their ability to do work activities.
Step Three requires a determination of whether or not a person’s impairments meet or medically equal one of Social Security’s listing of impairments. These are carefully crafted and precisely defined medical criteria for impairments of all major body systems that are considered serious enough to preclude gainful employment. I have previously posted briefly about the listing of impairments on June 9th
Step Four requires an analysis of the person’s residual functional capacity, or RFC. I have previously posted about “RFC” on March 20, 2014. It means the maximum amount of work like activities a person can do despite his or her medical impairments.
At step four, a determination must be made whether or not the person, given their age, education, work experience, and limitations, would be able to perform their prior relevant work (PRW). Prior relevant work is generally defined as any work they have done in the past fifteen (15) years that rises to the level of substantial gainful activity.
Step Five requires a determination of whether or not there is alternative work available in significant numbers in the national economy that the person could still do, given his or her vocational profile and despite his or her medical limitations.
A vocational expert will almost always be present at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), whose opinion is needed in order for social security to meet its limited burden of proof of showing whether or not there is alternative work available. I have previously posted on Vocational Experts (VEs) on March 11, 2014. The claimant will always have the opportunity to cross-examine the VE. Oftentimes, it is helpful to have the assistance of an experienced attorney in doing so.
The ultimate burden of proof is always upon the person claiming disability benefits to prove they are disabled by a preponderance of the evidence. Medical evidence is essential in this regard, as are other types of documentary and testimonial evidence.
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.