The Law Office of James P. Shea - Exclusively Dedicated to the Practice of Social Security Disability and SSI Law

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How Social Security Determines Whether You Are "Disabled."
The Social Security Administration will conduct a very specific analysis to determine whether your medical condition prevents you from working. This analysis, known in the law as the "sequential evaluation process," consists of asking five questions in a sequence of five "steps."  At each step in the process, if a determination can be made (either an award or a denial), the process stops at that step and does not continue further.

Fi​​rst (step 1), the Administration will ask “are you working?” If you are working, you are not disabled, because the definition of disability states that to be disabled you must suffer from medical conditions which prevent you from working.  If you are working, your claim for benefits will be denied.  Exceptions are made only in rare cases of individuals who are working but a few hours and earning very little by doing so.

Second (step 2), the Administration will ask “do you suffer from medical problems that would effect your ability to work?”  Remember, only a medical condition can be the cause of disability, not your employment chances or desperate circumstances.  You must present medical records which show that you actually suffer from medical problems which would likely have more than a minimal effect on your ability to work.  If you cannot show that you suffer from such medical problems, your claim will be denied.  If you have such medical problems, the Administration will not award benefits at this step, but will continue on with the next steps in the process.

Third (step 3), the Administration will seek to determine whether your medical records indicate that your medical problems are so severe that they satisfy the requirements of any of the so-called "listings" set out in the Administration's "Listing of Impairments" (a section of the Social Security Act).  This is a highly specialized analysis which considers facts established by your medical records alone (not your statements or the opinions of your doctors, or the statements of family or friends).  If you have medical conditions which reach this level of severity, your claim will be awarded at this step in the evaluation process.

Fourth (step 4), the Administration will ask if your medical conditions (or the side effects of the treatment you are undergoing) would prevent you from returning to any jobs that you have done in the past 15 years.  If
you are able to return to your former work, you are not disabled, and your claim will be denied at this step. If you are unable to return to any of your former jobs, then the Administration will proceed to step 5.

Fifth (step 5), the Administration will seek to determine whether there are jobs in the economy which you are still able to do in spite of your medical problems.  Importantly, at this step the Administration cannot speculate.  Any job considered must be recognized as a "real" job by the U.S. Department of Labor (jobs such as "mattress tester" don't count).  The job must exist in numbers which are "significant," and your age, education and past work experience will be factors when deciding whether you are capable of doing the job.

If there is other work you are capable of doing even though you have medical problems, your claim will be denied. If not, you will be granted disability benefits.