For every single case SSA uses the Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process to determine whether an applicant is disabled. The steps are followed in order. If it is determined that the applicant is “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step of the sequential evaluation process, the evaluation will end without going on to the next step. An applicant can lose at Step 1, Step 2, Step 4 or Step 5. However, an applicant can only win at Step 3 or Step 5.
Step One. At step one the SSA must determine whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful. “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical and mental activities. (Income from passive activities, such as investment or rental income, unless a substantial amount of time is devoted to said activities, is generally not considered to be substantial work activity.) “Gainful work activity” is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. Generally, if an individual has earnings from employment or self-employment above a specific level set out in the regulations, it is presumed that he or she has demonstrated the ability to engage in SGA. (The monthly SGA limits for 2015 are $1,090 for non-blind applicants and $1,830 for blind applicants.) If an individual engages in SGA, he or she is not disabled regardless of how severe his or her physical or mental impairments are. If the individual is not engaging in SGA, the analysis proceeds to the second step.
Step Two. At step two the SSA must determine whether the applicant has a medically determinable impairment that is “severe” or a combination of impairments that is “severe.” An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits an individual’s ability to perform basic work activities. An impairment or combination of impairments is “not severe” when medical and other evidence establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual’s ability to work. If the applicant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, he or she is not disabled. If the applicant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the analysis proceeds to the third step.
Step Three. At step three the SSA must determine whether the applicant’s impairment or combination of impairments is severe enough to “meet or medically equal” the criteria of an impairment specifically listed in the Federal Regulations. These are commonly known as “the listings.” If the applicant’s impairment or combination of impairments is severe enough to meet or medically equal the criteria of a listing, and also meets the duration requirement, the applicant is disabled. If it does not, the analysis proceeds to the next step. NOTE: Very few cases are severe enough to meet or equal a “listing” and therefore win at step three. Cases are not usually won until step five.
Before considering step four of the sequential evaluation process, the SSA must determine the applicant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”). An individual’s RFC is his or her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his or her impairments. In making this finding, the SSA must consider all of the applicant’s impairments, including impairments that are not severe.
Step Four. At step four the SSA must determine whether the applicant has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. The term “past relevant work” means work performed (either as the applicant actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy) within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established. In addition, the work must have lasted long enough for the applicant to learn to do the job and must have been SGA. If the applicant has the RFC to do his or her past relevant work, the applicant is not disabled. If the applicant is unable to do any past relevant work given his or her RFC, or does not have any past relevant work at all, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step.
Step Five. At step five the SSA must determine, given the applicant’s age, education, work experience and RFC, whether the applicant is able to do any other work. If the applicant is able to do other work, he or she is not disabled. If the applicant is not able to do other work and meets the duration requirement (he or she has been disabled for at least one year), he is disabled. Although the applicant generally continues to have the burden of proving disability at this step, a limited burden of going forward with the evidence shifts to the SSA. In order to support a finding that an individual is not disabled at this step, the SSA is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the applicant can do, given the residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.