SSR 86-8


This Ruling supersedes Program Policy Statement (PPS) No. 81 (Social Security Ruling (SSR) 82-56), Titles II and XVI: The Sequential Evaluation Process.

PURPOSE: To state the policy regarding sequential evaluation of disability as set forth in the regulations and to explain and clarify the provisions so there is a better understanding of this policy which will result in the correct and consistent application of these provisions of the regulations.

CITATIONS (AUTHORITY): Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a) of the Social Security Act, as amended; Regulations No. 4, Subpart P, sections 404.1510, 404.1520(a)(b)(d)(e)(f), 404.1521(b), 404.1523, 404.1525, 404.1526, 404.1528, 404.1545, 404.1560-404.1572, 404.1577, 404.1578 and Appendix 1; Regulations No. 16, Subpart I, sections 416.910, 416.920(a)(b)(d)(e)(f), 416.921(b), 416.923, 416.925, 416.926, 416.928, 416.945, and 416.960-416.972. NOTE: References to Regulations No. 4, Subpart P, sections 404.1520(c) and 404.1521(a), and Regulations No. 15, Subpart I, sections 416.920(c) and 416.921(a) have been deleted temporarily, pending publication of amendments to those provisions. Those references will be added to this Ruling after the amendments are published.

INTRODUCTION: In determining in initial claims whether an individual (except for a title II widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse; or title XVI child under age 18 or "statutorily blind" (individual) is disabled, the regulations state that a sequential evaluation process is followed whereby current work activity, severity and duration of the impairment(s), ability to do past work and vocational factors are considered in that order. (To be found disabled, title II widows, widowers, or surviving divorced spouses and title XVI children under age 18 must meet or equal the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P of the Regulations.) (See SSR 82-53 (PPS-74: Basic Disability Evaluation Guides).) This policy statement explains sequential evaluation by going through each step of the process. Where appropriate, cross-references are made to: (1) other PPS's which cover, in greater detail, specific steps in the process; or (2) pertinent regulatory provisions which are self-explanatory and not repeated here. (While this Ruling describes the sequential evaluation process for initial claims, the adjudicator, in determining continuing entitlement to benefits (with appropriate consideration of the medical improvement standard) follows a different sequence of evaluation which is described in Regulations section 404.1594(f) for title II and section 416.994(b)(5) for title XVI.)

POLICY STATEMENT: If a title II or a title XVI claimant is not working or his or her work does not demonstrate the ability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) during the period in which disability is alleged, we give primary consideration to the severity of the individual's impairment(s). In addition, if medical considerations alone are not determinative of the issue of disability for a title II worker or childhood disability claimant or for a title XVI claimant age 18 or older, we consider the ability to do past relevant work and the individual's age, education, training and work experience, as they relate to the ability to perform any other work.

The following evaluation steps are followed in sequence shown, but when a determination or decision that an individual is or is not disabled can be made at any step, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.

Is the Individual Engaging in Substantial Gainful Activity?

When an individual is actually engaging in SGA or did so during any pertinent period, and there is no possibility of establishing a period of disability which ended prior to the date of the decision, a finding shall be made without consideration of either medical or vocational factors that the individual is not under a disability. When a title II or title XVI claimant is not (or was not) actually engaging in SGA, primary consideration is given to the severity of the individual's impairment(s). (See SSR 83-33 (PPS-107: Determining Whether Work Is Substantial Gainful Activity — Employees), SSR 83-34 (PPS-108: Determining Whether Work Is Substantial Gainful Activity — Self-Employed Persons), SSR 83-35 (PPS-109: Averaging of Earnings in Determining Whether Work Is Substantial Gainful Activity), SSR 84-24 (PPS-112: Determination of Substantial Gainful Activity for Persons Working in Special Circumstances — Work Therapy Programs in Military Service — Work Activity in Certain Government-Sponsored Programs), SSR 84-25 (PPS-113: Determination of Substantial Gainful Activity If Substantial Work Activity Is Discontinued or Reduced — Unsuccessful Work Attempt), SSR 84-26 (PPS-114; Deducting Impairment-Related Work Expenses from Earnings in Determinations as to Substantial Gainful Activity under Titles II and XVI and as to Countable Earned Income under Title XVI) which further explain some of the basic concepts.)

Does the Individual Have a Severe Impairment?[1]

Fundamental to the disability determination process is the statutory requirement that to be found disabled, an individual must have a medically determinable impairment "of such severity" that it precludes his or her engaging in any substantial gainful work. A finding of ability to engage in SGA, therefore, may be justified on the basis of medical considerations alone when a medically determinable impairment(s) is found to be not severe. An impairment is not severe if it is a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than a minimal effect on the individual's physical or mental ability(ies) to perform basic work activities. When an impairment is not severe, a finding of "not disabled" is made irrespective of an individual's age, education, or work experience. Thus, even if an individual were of advanced age, had minimal education, and limited work experience, an impairment(s) found to be not severe would not prevent him or her from engaging in SGA.

When assessing the severity of multiple impairments, the adjudicator must evaluate the combined impact of those impairments on an individual's ability to function, rather than assess separately the contribution of each impairment to the restriction of function as if each impairment existed alone. When multiple impairments, considered in combination, would have more than a minimal effect on the ability to perform basic work activities, adjudication must continue through the sequential evaluation process.

The impairment severity requirement cannot be satisfied when medical evidence shows that the impairment(s) has a minimal effect on a person's ability(ies) to perform basic work activities, that is, when he or she has the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs. Examples of these are sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, handling, reaching, pushing or pulling; seeing, hearing, and speaking; understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; use of judgment, responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and dealing with changes in a routine work setting.

It is reasonable to conclude, in the absence of contrary evidence that an individual whose impairments do not preclude the performance of basic work activities, is, therefore, able to perform his or her past relevant work. However, if medical evidence establishes only a slight abnormality(ies) that would have no more than minimal effect on the individual's ability to do basic work activities, but evidence shows that the person cannot perform past relevant work because of the unique features of that work, a denial at the "not severe" step of the sequential evaluation process is inappropriate, and adjudication should continue through subsequent steps in the process.

Does the Individual Have an Impairment(s)
Which Meets or Equals the Listing?

A finding of disability will ordinarily be justified when the individual's impairment is one which is as severe as the impairments contained in the Listing of Impairments. The Listing of Impairments (see Regulations No. 4, Subpart P, Appendix 1) contains over 100 medical conditions which would ordinarily prevent an individual from engaging in any gainful activity. The Listing helps to assure that determinations or decisions of disability have a sound medical basis, that claimants receive equal treatment throughout the country, and that the majority of persons who are disabled can be readily identified.

The level of severity described in the Listing is such that an individual who is not engaging in SGA and has an impairment or the equivalent of an impairment described therein is generally considered unable to work by reason of the medical impairment alone. Thus, when such an individual's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the level of severity described in the Listing, and also meets the duration requirement, disability will be found on the basis of the medical facts alone in the absence of evidence to the contrary (e.g., the actual performance of SGA, or failure to follow prescribed treatment without a justifiable reason). The claimant's impairment(s) must meet or equal a listed impairment for a favorable determination or decision to be based on medical considerations alone.

Evaluating Medical Equivalence — Medical Judgment Required

For an impairment to be found to be equivalent in severity to a listed impairment, the set of symptoms, signs and laboratory findings in the medical evidence supporting a claim must be compared with, and found to be equivalent in terms of medical severity and duration to, the set of symptoms, signs and laboratory findings specified for a listed impairment. When the individual's impairment is not listed, the set for the most closely analogous listed impairment is used.

Where an individual has a combination of impairments, none of which meets or equals a listed impairment, and each impairment is manifested by a set of symptoms and relevant signs and/or abnormal laboratory findings, the collective medical findings of the combined impairments must be matched to the specific set of symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings of the listed impairment to which they can be most closely related. The mere accumulation of a number of impairments will not establish medical equivalency. In no case are symptoms alone a sufficient basis for establishing the presence of a physical or mental impairment.

Any decision as to whether an individual's impairment or impairments are medically equivalent of a listed impairment must be based on medical evidence demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, including consideration of a medical judgment about medical equivalence furnished by one or more physicians designated by the Secretary. The Disability Determination Services physician's documented medical judgment as to equivalency meets this regulatory requirement.

Interrelationship of Medical and Vocational Factors:
Title II Worker or Childhood Disability Beneficiary/Title XVI
Claimant Age 18 or Older

When a determination cannot be made on the basis of the medical factors alone (i.e., when the impairment falls short of the level of severity depicted by the Listing, yet has more than a minimal effect on the ability to perform basic work-related functions), the sequential evaluation process must continue with consideration of the vocational factors in the claim. A finding of ability to engage in any SGA cannot be justified solely on the grounds that the impairment does not meet or equal the level of severity depicted by the Listings.

Evaluation under Regulations No. 4, section 404.1520(e) and (f) and Regulations No. 16, section 416.920(e) and (f) requires careful consideration of whether the individual can do past relevant work (PRW), and if not, whether he or she can reasonably be expected to make a vocational adjustment to other work. When the individual's residual functional capacity (RFC) precludes meeting the physical and mental demands of PRW, consideration of all the facts of the case will lead to a finding that (1) the individual has the functional and vocational capacity for other work, considering the individual's age, education, and work experience, and that jobs which the individual could perform exist in significant numbers in the national economy, or (2) the extent of work that he or she can do, functionally and vocationally, is too narrow to sustain a finding of ability to engage in SGA.

Since the severity of the impairment must be the primary basis for a finding of disability, this step of the evaluation process begins with an assessment of the claimant's functional limitations and capacities. Then a determination or decision must be made as to whether the individual retains capacity to perform past relevant work. An evaluation is then made of age, education, work experience and training. Consideration of the following principles will help identify the key issues for resolution with respect to these factors. No single factor should be considered as conclusive. They should be applied in combination to the range of work that remains within the claimant's RFC.

Whether the claimant retains the functional capacity to perform work which he or she has done in the past has far-reaching implications and should be developed and explained fully in the disability determination or decision. Neither the determination or decision nor the denial notice should concede inability to do past work unless there is adequate documentation to establish the fact. Since this is an important and, in some instances, a controlling issue, every effort should be made to secure evidence that resolves the issue clearly and explicitly.

The vocational factors as well as RFC are described in detail as follows:

  • RFC — RFC is the remaining ability to perform work-related physical and mental activities. The claimant's functional capacity must be defined in terms of the claimant's ability to function in a work setting. When multiple impairments are involved, the assessment of RFC reflects the restrictions resulting from all impairments (both severe and not severe impairments). This assessment is based on all relevant evidence pertaining to RFC consistent with appropriate clinical and laboratory findings.

    Assessment of physical capacities (e.g., strength and exertional capabilities) includes an evaluation of the individual and indicates his or her maximum RFC for sustained activity on a regular basis. Such assessment also includes an evaluation of the ability to perform significant physical functions such as walking, standing, lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling, and such other physical traits and sensory characteristics as reaching, handling, seeing, hearing, and speaking insofar as limited capacity to perform these activities may affect the individual's capacity for work for which he or she would otherwise be qualified.

    Any medically determinable impairment(s) not resulting in exertional limitations (such as certain mental, sensory or skin impairments) must be considered in terms of the limitations resulting from the impairment. When an individual has such impairment(s) in addition to an exertional impairment(s), remaining functional capacity must be assessed in terms of the degree of any additional narrowing of the individual's work-related capabilities. The assessment of impairments because of mental disorders includes consideration of such factors as the ability to understand, to carry out and remember instructions, and to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and customary work pressures in a routine setting.

    The RFC assessment is based primarily on the medical findings i.e., the symptoms, signs, and laboratory results, which must be complete enough to permit and support the necessary judgments concerning the individual's physical, medical, and sensory capacities and any environmental restrictions. Descriptions and observations of the claimant's restrictions by medical and nonmedical sources in addition to those made during formal medical examinations must also be considered in the determination of RFC.

    Where no issue with respect to specific physical or mental capacities is raised by the allegations of the individual or the evidence obtained, the individual is considered to have no restrictions with respect to those capacities. The individual has the burden of proving that he or she is disabled and of raising any issue bearing on that determination or decision.

    For the purpose of determining the exertional requirements of work in the national economy, jobs are classified as "sedentary," "light," "medium," "heavy," and "very heavy." Such terms have the same meanings as are used in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, published by the Department of Labor (DOL), and when used in making disability determinations or decisions are used as follows: sedentary work, light work, medium work, heavy work, and very heavy work. In order to evaluate the claimant's skills and to help determine the existence in the national economy of work the claimant is able to do, occupations are classified as unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled. For classifying these occupations, materials published by the DOL are used.

  • Age — The term "age" refers to chronological age and the extent to which it affects the individual's ability to adapt to a new work situation and engage in work in competition with others. Reference sources and materials dealing with chronological age in terms of vocational impact point to a direct relationship between age and the ability to adjust to other work.

    These resources and materials reflect employment problems developing at age 45 and the problems becoming significantly intensified at age 55. Thus, the regulations reflect age 55 and over as "advanced age," representing the point when age could be expected to be an adverse consideration in determining an individual's vocational adaptability to work differing from that of his or her past experience. However, disability is never determined on the basis of age alone. The following age classifications are established in Regulations Nos. 4 and 16 (see sections 404.1563 and 416.963): younger person, person approaching advanced age, and person of advanced age. These designations of age are an expectancy only, not arbitrary limits, and may not be crucial in a particular case. Age categories are not applied mechanically in borderline cases.

  • Education and Training — Education generally refers to formal schooling; training refers to skills and knowledge acquired on the job or through general experience in an industry or field of work. Both can significantly affect ability to work, and must therefore be considered in evaluating the impact of an impairment on an individual claimant. (Regulations Nos. 4 and 16, sections 404.1564 and 416.964, establish the following classifications of educational levels: illiteracy, marginal education, limited education, high school and above, and inability to communicate in English.)

    Training that is vocationally significant prepares an individual to do a specific job or provides background to do a number of jobs in the same field. Training that is not reflected in the individual's actual work experience would raise questions as to its adequacy and current usefulness to the individual. Content, duration, and recency should be considered in determining the scope and application of training and its current usefulness. Normally, if an individual completed training more than 15 years prior to the point at which the claim is being considered for adjudication (or when the earnings requirement was last met if earlier) and did not make use of it in his or her work, it would not affect the claimant's vocational outlook at the present time. Moreover, even if completed with a 15-year period, training would not ordinarily be expected to qualify an individual for more than entry level (e.g., at the apprenticeship or lowest beginning level) occupations. Therefore, care should be exercised to assure that undue weight is not attributed to training and to ascertain how training can be utilized in occupations.

  • Experience — The jobs a person has done, the length of time spent at them, and the recency of the work are major factors in determining his or her ability to work. Work experience is relevant when it was performed within the pertinent 15-year period, lasted long enough for the individual to learn the job, and consisted of SGA. Work experience must be examined in the light of available knowledge of the physical and skill demands of different kinds of work in order to evaluate the effect of the impairment on the person's ability to return to past relevant work or to utilize remaining capacities in other jobs. (For a more detailed discussion of prior work experience, see SSR 82-62 (PPS-80: A Disability Claimant's Capacity to Do Past Relevant Work).)

The RFC assessment is used to determine whether an individual can perform past relevant work or — considering an individual's age, education and work experience — other work which exists in the nation's economy.

  • Capacity to Do Past Relevant Work — The RFC to meet the physical and mental demands of jobs a claimant has performed in the past (either the specific job a claimant performed or the same type of work as it is customarily performed throughout the economy) is generally a sufficient basis for a finding that the individual is not disabled. Past work experience should be considered carefully to assure that the available facts support conclusions regarding the claimant's ability or inability to perform this work.

    Where an individual with a marginal education and long work experience of 35 years or more limited to the performance of arduous unskilled labor is not working, and is no longer able to perform such labor because of a severe impairment(s), such an individual will generally be found to be disabled. (See Regulations Nos. 4 and 16, sections 404.1562 and 416.962.) Also a person generally will be found disabled if he or she has a severe impairment of any nature, is of advanced age, has a limited education, and has no relevant work experience.

    If the individual is able to meet the physical and mental demands of past relevant work, he or she should be found not disabled. However, the inability to do past relevant work is not in itself a basis for a finding of disability.

  • Capacity to Do Other Work — If an individual cannot perform any past relevant work because of a severe impairment(s), but the remaining physical and mental capacities are consistent with meeting the physical and mental demands of a significant number of jobs (in one or more occupations) in the national economy, and the individual has the vocational capabilities (considering age, education, and past work experience) to make an adjustment to work different from that performed in the past, it shall be determined that the individual is not disabled. However, if an individual's physical and mental capacities in conjunction with his or her vocational capabilities (considering age, education and past work experience) do not permit the individual to adjust to work different from that performed in the past, it shall be determined that the individual is disabled.

The assessment ability to engage in SGA involves the evaluation of such factors as the functional capacity to perform the physical or mental exertion of work and to sustain work at a level which meets the standards of SGA on a regular and continuing basis. In all such cases where a determination or decision regarding disability is to be made, the evidence must be sufficient to permit a comparison between the claimant's capabilities and limitations and the requirements of relevant occupations.

The regulations require that, at this point in the sequential evaluation process, the rules established in Appendix 2 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 must be used to direct or to guide the determination as to whether the individual is "disabled." Where all factors relative to an individual coincide with those in a rule in the Appendix, that rule directs a conclusion as to whether the individual is "disabled." When all factors do not coincide with a rule (e.g., the individual has the RFC for more than light work but for less than the full range of medium work), the rules are used as a frame of reference for determining whether the individual is "disabled."

Similarly, when an individual has a combination of exertional and nonexertional impairments, the rules are used as a frame of reference for determining "disability." The exertional impairment is considered first under the applicable rule, and then the additional restriction(s) imposed by the nonexertional impairment is considered.

When an individual has a solely nonexertional impairment, the principles established in the regulations are applied in determining "disability," giving consideration to the rules for specific case situations described in Appendix 2 (i.e., use of the rules as a frame of reference). When the nonexertional impairment is a mental impairment, the ability to concentrate, to understand, to carry out and remember instructions, and to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and pressures in a work setting are considered. (See Regulations Nos. 4 and 16, sections 404.1545(c) and 416.945(c).)

The Disability Determination or Decision

The disability determination or hearing decision must be set forth carefully. The rationale must reflect the sequential evaluation process; describe the weight attributed to the pertinent medical, nonmedical and vocational factors in the case; and reconcile any significant inconsistencies. Reasonable inferences may be drawn, but presumptions, speculations and suppositions should not be substituted for evidence.

If the determination or decision is based on medical-vocational considerations, it must always contain findings that the individual is not engaging in SGA; there is a severe impairment, but that the individual's impairment(s) does not meet or equal that of any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments; must describe the individual's specific RFC; and must sequentially relate it to physical and mental demands of past work or other substantial work to which the individual could or could not be expected to make a vocational adjustment by reason of her or his age, education and past work experience. Each finding of fact must be based on supporting evidence.

In the rationale for a denial, a mere conclusion that "the impairment(s) is not severe enough to prevent the claimant from engaging in SGA" is insufficient. If the evidence establishes that the impairment(s) is "not severe," the rational must show that the impairment(s) would not have more than a minimal effect on the performance of basic work-related functions. If a denial may not be made on this basis, the rationale must reflect the remainder of the sequential evaluation process.

Similarly, an allowance based on a mere conclusion that the claimant is "not able to engage in SGA" is insufficient. The rationale must state fully the reasons for the inability to engage in SGA based on the evidence of record, the applicable regulations, and the determinative step in the sequential evaluation process. Under the regulations, a finding that an individual's impairment(s) does not meet or equal the Listing effectively indicates that he or she has a sufficient work capability at the sedentary or a higher exertional level, to require medical-vocational evaluation. Therefore, an allowance determination or decision based on a conclusion that "the claimant has no RFC" is never appropriate. If the impairment(s) does not meet or equal the Listing, the rationale must reflect the remainder of the sequential evaluation process. If the claimant does not, in fact, have the RFC for a full range of sedentary work, the case must be evaluated within the framework of the vocational rules. The functional restrictions which limit the claimant to less than the full range of sedentary work must be specified. It must then be determined whether, considering all of the functional limitations, a "significant number" of sedentary jobs which the claimant can perform exists in the national economy.

Where denial is on the basis of duration, if based on medical-vocational considerations, the projected RFC must similarly be described and related.

EFFECTIVE DATE: The policy explained herein was effective on August 20, 1980, the date the regulations covering the basic policy in the subject area were effective (45 FR 55566), with the exceptions of the provision on multiple impairments (amendment to the Act effective December 1, 1984) and the clarification of policy regarding "not severe" impairments (issued in SSR 85-28, November 15, 1985).

CROSS-REFERENCES: Program Operations Manual System, sections DI 22001.001-22001.010, 22001.020-22001.030, 24505.001-24505.005, 25005.001, 25020.005-25020.015, 25505.001.

[1] In jurisdictions where judicial injunctions prohibit use of this step in the sequential evaluation process, adjudicators will omit consideration of this question.

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