Can Social Security Turn You Down If You Can Do Your Past Work?

Social Security Disability is a total disability program in which the expectation is that you cannot be able to perform any kind of work at a substantial level.

The Social Security Administration uses a sequential evaluation process to determine if you are disabled according to the guidelines of the Social Security Disability program. Social Security uses this process to make their all of their disability determinations; therefore, this system applies to both Social Security Disability and SSI disability cases.

The first three steps of the evaluation process involve Step one: a determination as to whether you are performing substantial gainful activity. If you are gainfully employed, i.e. engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the process stops here and you are denied.

If you are not (gainfully employed), the case moves on to Step two. Step two involves determining if you have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment. This simply means that your condition must be verified by acceptable medical record documentation. If you do have a medically determinable impairment, your case moves on to the next level of the sequential evaluation process.

Step three involves determining if your impairment meets the criteria of an impairment listing. If you meet or equal the criteria of a Social Security Disability impairment listing (in the Disability Evaluation handbook which is used by both disability examiners and administrative law judges and which is often referred to as the blue book, or the Social Security Disability list of impairments), the sequential evaluation process stops here and your disability claim will be medically approved for disability benefits.

If you do not meet or equal an impairment listing, your disability claim will move to the final two steps of the sequential evaluation process. The last steps of the evaluation process involve an evaluation of your ability to work. Unfortunately, the vast majority of all Social Security Disability determinations involve step four and five of the sequential evaluation process.

Step four of the sequential evaluation process evaluates your ability to perform any of your past relevant work. Social Security considers relevant work to be any work performed by you within the fifteen years prior to your filing for disability. You must have performed the job three months or more, had time to learn to do it (meaning you actually learned the duties or skills associated with the job), and the work had to be that in which you earned a substantial and gainful income.

How does the disability examiner determine whether or not you can return to your past work? Your medical evidence will be evaluated to determine what your current physical and/or mental limitations are. This is known as your RFC--residual functional capacity--rating. This rating is then compared to whatever the demands of your past jobs were (the information about your past jobs is obtained from something known as the DOT, or dictionary of occupational titles and this is why it is so very important that you include detailed descriptions of your past jobs, including job titles and work descriptions, when you file your disability claim).

If your current limitations are still within the range of what your past work required of you, then you may be denied for disability on the basis of being able to return to your past work.

However, if your current limitations would not allow you to perform the duties of your past work, your case will move on to Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process.

Step 5 is a determination of whether or not you can do some type of other work, based on factors such as your age, education, and transferrable or non-transferrable work skills. Many cases for which it is determined that a claimant cannot return to their past work are still denied on the basis of the claimant being able to perform some type of other work and it is at a disability hearing that the presence of a disability lawyer can be effectively used to counter the assertion that a person could actually find other work within their living area to switch to.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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