Bowen v. Yuckert, 85-1409

Citation96 L.Ed.2d 119,482 U.S. 137,107 S.Ct. 2287
Decision Date08 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-1409,85-1409
PartiesOtis R. BOWEN, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Petitioner v. Janet J. YUCKERT
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

The Social Security Act (Act) defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act also provides that an individual "shall be determined to be under a disability only if his . . . impairment [is] 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 . . . substantial gainful work. . . ." § 423(d)(2)(A). The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. In step two of that process, the "severity regulation" provides: "If you do not have any impairment . . . which significantly limits your . . . ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." Respondent applied for disability benefits, but the appropriate state agency determined that she was not disabled. In light of the medical evidence and evidence of her activities, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Administrative Law Judge concluded that her medically determinable impairments were not severe under the severity regulation, and the SSA's Appeals Council denied her request for review. The Federal District Court affirmed, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that the Act does not authorize benefits denials based solely on a determination that the claimant is not severely impaired, and that § 423(d)(2)(A) requires that both medical and vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience be considered in determining disability. The court rejected the Secretary's contention that the 1984 amendments to the Act endorsed step two of the disability evaluation process, and invalidated the severity regulation.

Held:

1. The severity regulation is valid on its face under the language of the Act and the legislative history. Pp. 142-152.

(a) The severity regulation is not inconsistent with § 423(d)(1)(A), which defines "disability" in terms of the effect an impairment has on a person's ability to function in the workplace. The regulation adopts precisely this functional approach to determining the effects of medical impairments, when it requires the claimant to show that he has an "impairment . . . which significantly limits" "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." If the impairment is not severe enough to so limit the claimant, by definition it does not prevent the claimant from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Moreover, § 423(d)(5)(A) expressly gives the Secretary the authority to place the burden of showing a medically determinable impairment on the claimant. The requirement of a threshold showing of severity also is consistent with the legislative history of § 423(d)(1)(A). Pp. 146-147.

(b) The severity regulation is not inconsistent with § 423(d)(2)(A), which restricts disability benefit eligibility to claimants whose medically severe impairments prevent them from doing their previous work and any other substantial gainful work in the national economy. If a claimant is unable to show that he has a medically severe impairment, he is not eligible for benefits, and there is no reason for the Secretary to consider his age, education, and work experience. The legislative history reinforces this understanding of the statutory language. Pp. 147-149.

(c) In enacting § 4(a)(1) of the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C), Congress expressed its approval of the severity regulation both in the statute and in the accompanying Reports, recognizing that the Secretary may make an initial determination of medical severity, and that he need not consider the claimant's age, education, and experience unless he finds "a medically severe combination of impairments." Pp. 149-152.

2. The severity regulation increases the efficiency and reliability of the disability evaluation process by identifying at an early stage those claimants whose medical impairments are so slight that it is unlikely they would be found to be disabled even if their age, education, and experience were taken into account. Pp. 153—154.

774 F.2d 1365, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. ----. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. ----.

Edwin S. Kneedler, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Carole F. Grossman for respondent.

Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether the Secretary of Health and Human Services may deny a claim for Social Security disability benefits on the basis of a determination that the claimant does not suffer from a medically severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities.

I

Title II of the Social Security Act (Act), 49 Stat. 620, as amended, provides for the payment of insurance benefits to persons who have contributed to the program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D) (1982 ed., Supp. III). Title XVI of the Act provides for the payment of disability benefits to indigent persons under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. § 1382(a). Both titles of the Act define "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. . . ." § 423(d)(1)(A). See § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B) (1982 ed. and Supp. III).

The Secretary has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (1986). Step one determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If he is, disability benefits are denied. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If he is not, the decisionmaker proceeds to step two, which determines whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. That determination is governed by the "severity regulation" at issue in this case. The severity regulation provides:

"If you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

The ability to do basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b). Such abilities and aptitudes include "[p]hysical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling"; "[c]apacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking"; "[u]nderstanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions"; "[u]se of judgment"; "[r]esponding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations"; and "[d]ealing with changes in a routine work setting." Ibid.

If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. If the impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third step, which determines whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Secretary acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); 20 CFR pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1 (1986). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, which determines whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work he has performed in the past. If the claimant is able to perform his previous work, he is not disabled. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant cannot perform this work, the fifth and final step of the process determines whether he is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience. The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he is not able to perform other work. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f).

The initial disability determination is made by a state agency acting under the authority and supervision of the Secretary. 42 U.S.C. §§ 421(a), 1383b(a); 20 CFR §§ 404.1503, 416.903 (1986). If the state agency denies the disability claim, the claimant may pursue a three-stage administrative review process. First, the determination is reconsidered de novo by the state agency. §§ 404.909(a), 416.1409(a). Second, the claimant is entitled...

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