The 5 Steps of SS Disability Evaluation

By Jennifer Scherf

Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the SSA has established a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether an individual is disabled as that term is defined by SSA. (See 20 CFR 404.1520(a)). These steps must be followed in numerical order. If a claimant does not meet the requirements of one step, they are not disabled and further evaluation will not go on.

Step 1

Is the person applying for disability working? Working is defined as substantial and gainful activity.* If a person is engaging in SGA, they are not disabled, no matter how severe their impairments are. If they are not engaging in SGA, evaluation continues to step 2.

Step 2

Does the person applying for benefits have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that are “medically determinable”* The impairment must be evidenced by testing or medical records, and the level of impairment you have as a result must be severe in how much it affects your daily activities. If you have a bad left arm, but you are right handed and can compensate, even though you have some limitations, this may not be severe as that term is defined by SSA. If there is a severe medically determinable impairment, evaluation continues to step 3.

Step 3

Do your impairments meet or equal a listing? SSA has defined multiple conditions as well as what elements they are looking for to determine how severe it is. Please see our website for more information about listings. If you meet or equal a listing, the evaluation stops and you are disabled. If you do not meet a listing, evaluation continues to step 4.

Step 4

What is your residual functional capacity and can you perform your past relevant work? How limited are you? Can you still perform any work that you have done in the past 15 years? If you have worked as a receptionist and as a laborer in the past 15 years, and you can no longer work as a laborer, but you can still work as a receptionist, you are not disabled. If you can not perform any of your past relevant work, evaluation continues to step 5.

Step 5

Is there any other work that you can perform given your age, education and work background. This is the trickiest level of the evaluation. Your age, your past work and your education all come in to play at this level. A 57 year old who has only worked as a janitor only has to prove that they can no longer work as a janitor to be found disabled. However, a 33 year old with a limited education who has only worked in a warehouse must prove that they cannot do a sit down job such as telemarketing to prove that they are disabled. It does not matter if you are interested in this type of job or if there are jobs in your town that fit the description, only if you are physically and mentally capable of performing the jobs.

  • SGA is two-tiered. 1. are you making money (over @ $1,000 per month) & 2. are you performing work for this money (more than @ 20 hours per week)
  • Medically determinable means there is some objective finding supporting your complaints. For example, if you say your arm has nerve damage & you cannot use it, but all tests show that the nerves are normal, or you have never had any testing done on the arm, you do not have a medically determinable impairment.

For additional information, please visit www.socialsecurityjustice.com or call our office at (800) 208-3104 and speak to a member of our Social Security Disability team.