Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20 (2003)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

No. 02-763. Argued October 14, 2003—Decided November 12, 2003

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

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