The Social Security Act establishes a five-step process for deciding whether a claimant is disabled. (The process is described below.) When you apply for Social Security disability benefits, you authorize the release of information from your doctors (and often past employers, friends, and family members) so that the Social Security Administration can gather the evidence necessary to evaluate your case. Under the five-step process, the Social Security Administration asks:
First, are you performing substantial gainful activity? In other words, are you working too much to qualify for disability benefits? You cannot qualify for Social Security benefits unless you have worked under certain levels for at least a full year or you are expected to work under those levels for at least a full year.
Second, is your medical condition severe? In other words, does your physical or mental health condition(s) interfere with your ability to work?
Third, does your medical condition meet or equal a listing? In other words, is your condition on the list of medical conditions that are so severe that you “automatically” qualify for benefits. Note: while the Social Security Administration refers to “automatically qualifying” for benefits, determining whether your condition meets the severity required under this step is a judgment that is often very difficult to make. There are also ways of arguing that your medical condition is equivalent in severity to a listed impairment.
Fourth, are you capable of performing your past relevant work? Are you able to do any type of work you have done in the past fifteen years or in the fifteen years before the date you were last insured for benefits? Again, this is a complicated analysis involving how you performed the work, how the work is generally performed, the skills required by the work, how long the work lasted, how much money you made performing the work, and other factors.
Fifth, are you capable of performing other work in the national and regional economy? In other words, taking into account your age, educational background, past work, and any skills gained from that past work, are you capable of performing types of work different from the type of work you have performed in the past 15 years? Again, this is a complicated analysis, involving the consideration of jobs that you may never have heard of.
Schneider, Kerr & Robichaux