Barnhart v. Thomas

Decision Date12 November 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-763.,02-763.
Citation540 U.S. 20
PartiesBARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY v. THOMAS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

A person is disabled, and thereby eligible for Social Security disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U. S. C. §§423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B) (emphasis added) (hereinafter §423(d)(2)(A)). After her job as an elevator operator was eliminated, respondent Thomas applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that her impairments did not prevent her from performing her past relevant work as an elevator operator, rejecting her argument that she is unable to do that work because it no longer exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The District Court affirmed the ALJ, concluding that whether Thomas's old job exists is irrelevant under the Social Security Administration's (SSA) regulations. In reversing and remanding, the en banc Third Circuit held that §423(d)(2)(A) unambiguously provides that the ability to perform prior work disqualifies from benefits only if it is substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

Held: The SSA's determination that it can find a claimant not disabled where she remains physically and mentally able to do her previous work, without investigating whether that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy, is a reasonable interpretation of § 423(d)(2)(A) that is entitled to deference under Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837. Section 423(d)(2)(A) establishes two requirements: An impairment must render an individual "unable to do his previous work" and must also preclude him from "engag[ing] in any other kind of substantial gainful work." The clause "which exists in the national economy" clearly qualifies the latter requirement. The issue in this case is whether that clause also qualifies the former requirement. The SSA's regulations, which create a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability, answer that question in the negative. At step four, the SSA will find not disabled a claimant who can do his previous work, without inquiring whether that work exists in the national economy. Rather, it reserves inquiry into the national economy for the fifth step, when it considers vocational factors and determines whether the claimant can perform other jobs in the national economy. See 20 CFR §§404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c). That interpretation is a reasonable construction of §423(d)(2)(A). The Third Circuit's contrary reading ignores the grammatical "rule of the last antecedent," under which a limiting clause or phrase should be read to modify only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows. Construing §423(d)(2)(A) in accord with this rule is quite sensible. Congress could have determined that an analysis of a claimant's capacity to do his previous work would in most cases be an effective and efficient administrative proxy for the claimant's ability to do some work that exists in the national economy. There is good reason to use such a proxy to avoid the more expansive and individualized step-five analysis. The proper Chevron inquiry is not whether an agency construction can give rise to undesirable results in some instances (which both the SSA's and the Third Circuit's constructions can), but whether, in light of the alternatives, the agency construction is reasonable. Here, the SSA's authoritative interpretation satisfies that test. Pp. 23-30.

294 F. 3d 568, reversed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Jeffrey A. Lamken argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Olson, Assistant Attorney General McCallum, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, William Kanter, Wendy M. Keats, and Barbara L. Spivak.

Abraham S. Alter argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a "disability." A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U. S. C. §§423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). The issue we must decide is whether the SSA may determine that a claimant is not disabled because she remains physically and mentally able to do her previous work, without investigating whether that previous work exists in significant numbers in the national economy.

I

Pauline Thomas worked as an elevator operator for six years until her job was eliminated in August 1995. In June 1996, at age 53, Thomas applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. See 49 Stat. 622, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 401 et seq. (Title II); as added, 86 Stat. 1465, and as amended, § 1381 et seq. (Title XVI). She claimed that she suffered from, and was disabled by, heart disease and cervical and lumbar radiculopathy.

After the SSA denied Thomas's application initially and on reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ found that Thomas had "hypertension, cardiac arrythmia, [and] cervical and lumbar strain/sprain." Decision of ALJ 5, Record 15. He concluded, however, that Thomas was not under a "disability" because her "impairments do not prevent [her] from performing her past relevant work as an elevator operator." Id., at 6, Record 16. He rejected Thomas's argument that she is unable to do her previous work because that work no longer exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The SSA's Appeals Council denied Thomas's request for review.

Thomas then challenged the ALJ's ruling in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, renewing her argument that she is unable to do her previous work due to its scarcity. The District Court affirmed the ALJ concluding that whether Thomas's old job exists is irrelevant under the SSA's regulations. Thomas v. Apfel, Civ. No. 99-2234 (Aug. 17, 2000). The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and remanded. Over the dissent of three of its members, it held that the statute unambiguously provides that the ability to perform prior work disqualifies from benefits only if it is "substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 294 F. 3d 568, 572 (2002). That holding conflicts with the decisions of four other Courts of Appeals. See Quang Van Han v. Bowen, 882 F. 2d 1453, 1457 (CA9 1989); Garcia v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 46 F. 3d 552, 558 (CA6 1995); Pass v. Chater, 65 F. 3d 1200, 1206-1207 (CA4 1995); Rater v. Chater, 73 F. 3d 796, 799 (CA8 1996). We granted the SSA's petition for certiorari. 537 U. S. 1187 (2003).

II

As relevant to the present case, Title II of the Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U. S. C. § 423(d)(1)(A). That definition is qualified, however, as follows:

"An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. . . ." §423(d)(2)(A) (emphases added).

"[W]ork which exists in the national economy" is defined to mean "work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country." Ibid. Title XVI of the Act, which governs Supplemental Security Income for disabled indigent persons, employs the same definition of "disability" used in Title II, including a qualification that is verbatim the same as § 423(d)(2)(A). See 42 U. S. C. §1382c(a)(3)(B). For simplicity's sake, we will refer only to the Title II provisions, but our analysis applies equally to Title XVI.

Section 423(d)(2)(A) establishes two requirements for disability. First, an individual's physical or mental impairment must render him "unable to do his previous work." Second, the impairment must also preclude him from "engag[ing] in any other kind of substantial gainful work." The parties agree that the latter requirement is qualified by the clause that immediately follows it—"which exists in the national economy." The issue in this case is whether that clause also qualifies "previous work."

The SSA has answered this question in the negative. Acting pursuant to its statutory rulemaking authority, 42 U. S. C. §§405(a) (Title II), 1383(d)(1) (Title XVI), the agency has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See 20 CFR § 404.1520 (2003) (governing claims for disability insurance benefits); § 416.920 (parallel regulation governing claims for Supplemental Security Income). If at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made, the SSA...

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