According to the Social Security Administration's Regulations, a claim for Social Security Disability Benefits is evaluated by what is referred to in the law as the 5-Step Sequential Evaluation Process. At Step 1, Social Security determines whether or not a claimant is working and making over "Substantial Gainful Employment," or a monthly gross income of $1,170 (2017) or higher. If the answer is "no" to both, the claim proceeds to the next Step. At Step 2, they evaluate the combination of medical conditions to determine whether or not a "severe impairment" exists. If a severe impairment is found, the claim proceeds to Step 3. At Step 3, SSA determines whether or not the medical evidence on record is substantial enough to satisfy one of their specific listed impairments (i.e., major depressive disorder, chronic heart failure, leukemia, etc.). If the medical evidence supports a finding of disability at Step 3, the claim is awarded and Steps 4 & 5 become unnecessary.
If Step 4 is necessary, SSA considers any and all physical/mental abilities, skills, and the level of education to determine whether or not a claimant is able to return to his/her previous work as it was performed (Note: a claim cannot be awarded at Step 4 so proceeding to Step 5 is always necessary). Finally at Step 5, SSA evaluates whether or not a claimant is able to perform any other jobs in the national economy on a competitive basis, taking into consideration all of the medical impairments. Generally speaking, for claimants who are "Closely Approaching Advanced Age" (50-55) or "Advanced Age" (55 and over), SSA may use the Medical Vocational Guidelines (GRIDS) to evaluate a claim at Step 5 to direct a favorable outcome. The GRIDS are a useful reference tool which direct a decision based on a claimant's residual functional capacity (physical/mental abilities), age, education, transferability of skills. For claimants classified as a "Younger Individual" (49 or younger), the GRIDS generally do not apply unless there is evidence he/she is illiterate or unable to communicate in English. Although this is the case, SSA still may use the GRIDS in cases of Younger Individuals as a template in evaluating Medical-Vocational issues at Step 5. The GRIDS can be viewed in Appendix 2 to Subpart P of Part 404 of the Code of Federal Regulations, or on Social Security's Website by clicking here.