Am I ‘Disabled’ if I Cannot Find Work?

Am I ‘Disabled’ if I Cannot Find Work?

A layoff or an employer’s downsizing can present an older worker with grim choices: should the worker attempt to find a new job? Or should the worker attempt to draw retirement benefits, knowing that doing so can result in financial consequences? For some older workers, a layoff or downsizing can result in an attempt to claim disability benefits. By claiming that a medical or mental condition impairs their ability to work, they claim that even if they could continue working at their former job, there are not enough of such jobs available for them. Does such an argument work? The U.S. Supreme Court answered this question in the 2003 case Barnhart v. Thomas.

Five-Step Disability Determination

In determining whether an individual is eligible for Social Security disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a five-step determination process:

  1. Are you working?  If you are working and such work is considered “substantial gainful activity” – that is, if you make more than $1,090 per month – then you will not be considered disabled.
  2. Is your condition (physically and/or mentally) “severe”? In other words, does your condition interfere with your ability to perform work-related activities? If not, then the SSA will not find you to be disabled.
  3. Do you have a condition that is found on the list of disabling conditions? This list contains various conditions that the SSA considers to be so severe that a person who has such a condition is considered disabled. If your condition is not on the list, the SSA considers whether your specific condition or conditions is equal in severity to a condition that is on the list. If the SSA finds that it is not, the inquiry continues.
  4. Can you perform any of your prior work? If you cannot perform any of your prior work, the inquiry continues to Step 5. If the SSA finds you can perform your prior work, you are not considered disabled.
  5. Can you perform any other work? Taking into consideration the particulars of your situation and condition, the SSA will consider if there are any jobs of sufficient number in the national economy that you are able to perform. If there are, then you will not be found to be disabled.

Thomas’ Argument and the Supreme Court’s Ruling

In Thomas, the claimant Ms. Thomas worked as an elevator operator for several years until her position was eventually eliminated. She then filed for disability benefits, claiming that hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia, and cervical and lumbar strains and sprains kept her from being able to work. She claimed further that she was unable to return to her previous job because there were not enough such jobs in the national economy. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Thomas’ argument based upon the language of the Social Security Act. In particular, the Court found that the plain language of the statute did not require a claimant’s prior work to exist in sufficient numbers. So long as a claimant is able to perform his or her prior job – regardless of whether such work actually exists – he or she will be denied benefits. Although the five-step process seems simple, the fate of your disability benefits claim can turn on facts that may at first appear to be inconsequential. Let us assist with your Social Security disability benefits claim by contacting the Klok Law Firm LLC today for a free consultation. Call us at (843) 216-8860.