The Social Security Administration uses a five step process to evaluate whether individuals applying for disability benefits meet its requirements under the Social Security Act. These steps are essentially questions to be answered by administrative law judges appointed by the Social Security Administration. If the questions are satisfactorily answered, claims are approved.
One of the roles of attorneys on disability cases is to help provide answers to these questions. This usually occurs after the attorney has had an opportunity to meet with the client and understand fully each and every medical problem which the client has. The process of obtaining medical background can be time-consuming because most people applying for disability have more than one major medical problem.
The inability to perform, or ‘substantial gainful activity’ as the Security Administration calls it, can be a process many years in the making. Little by little, a worker’s earning capacity can be whittled away by the effects of medical problems individually, or in combination.
A couple of the questions asked by the Social Administration are easily answered. For example, ‘are you working now?’ and ‘do you have any chronic medical impairments or problems?’ Keep in mind impairment is anything which affects a major life activity. Medical records usually contain diagnoses and show the long term effects of problems. They also have reference to various types of tests, including medical imaging, which objectively illustrate the severity of these conditions. The claimant’s representative should make every effort to obtain each medical source to illustrate the claimant’s impairments and their severity. But this is only the beginning.
A couple of the steps in the process of evaluating disability ask questions which are more difficult to answer. For example, ‘can the claimant perform his or her past work?’ Or, ‘do jobs exist in either the local or national economy which the claimant can perform despite his or her medical problems?’ In all candors, in order to answer these questions, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the Social Security regulations as well as have access to medical sources and vocational testimony. The claimant’s representative must be committed to answering these questions with medical sources and through the presentation of testimony at hearings. The results can be gratifying to the attorney but more importantly can help the client recover from the devastating economic effects of losing the capacity to work.