Step 4:   Past Relevant Work

In order to found disabled under the Social Security Act, you must be shown that you are incapable of performing your “past relevant work”.  This is known as the fourth step in the disability process. You must demonstrate a medically provable physical and/or mental impairment or impairments that are so severe that you are not only not capable of performing his or her prior work but also cannot perform any other kind of work which exists in the national economy when your age, education, and work experience. The law states as follows:

"Your impairment must prevent you from doing past relevant work. If we cannot make a decision based on your current work activity or on medical facts alone, and you have a severe impairment, we then review your residual functional capacity [RFC] and the physical and mental demands of the work you have done in the past. If you can still do this kind of work, we will find that you are not disabled."

The Social Security Administration will evaluate skills and abilities that you have developed as a result of your work because the work that you have performed in the past helps the Social Security Administration understand what work you may be able to perform.  Of significance, only work that you have performed in the past 15 years will be evaluated and ordinarily only work within the past 15 years is considered “relevant” to the disability analysis. If you have only worked occasionally or for short periods of time in the past 15 years, the Social Security Administration may determine that you do not have any past relevant work.  There are at least three factors to determining if any of your past work will be considered.

  1. Substantial Gainful Activity -- Basically, this looks at your earnings. The question is whether you have earned money as a result of work and, if so, how much.  Earning small amounts of money may eliminate a job from being considered in your disability case.
  2. How long did you do the job? The length of time that you did the job must be shown to be sufficient to prove that you were able to learn the job well enough to understand how to do the job efficiently and, on average, competently.  There is not a set length of time. The length of time it can take for any particular job depends on the complexity of that job.
  3. How long ago did you do the job? Since jobs change gradually, it is not reasonable for the Social Security Administration to expect that you still have abilities and skills that you acquired in jobs that you performed greater than 15 years ago. The 15-year guide is intended to ensure that remote work experience which could not reasonably be expected to be of current relevance is not applied.

However, there are some situations when the Social Security Administration will look at work that you performed greater than 15 years ago:

  1. The 15-year period is usually applied to the 15 years before the initial, reconsideration or hearing level.
  2. There are some cases in which an individual may have an “insured” status that is before when a decision is made. In that case, the 15 year period is considered the 15 years befor the “date last insured”

In determining whether you can perform your past work, the main source of information are your own statements about your work to determine the skills, physical demands and non-physical demands of your work. Specifically, the Social Security Administration will evaluate the following:

  1. Your own statements about your past work and why you cannot perform that work.
  2. Medical statements from your doctor or a doctor hired by the Social Security Administration that reveal how your impairments impact your ability to perform certain activities.
  3. Vocational “experts” might be used to along with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to determine the skill level and demands of your past work.

Here are some tips for making sure that the Social Security Administration has a complete picture of your prior work.  As noted above, you have the most knowledge about how you actually performed your work and that knowledge is very valuable:

  1. During the disability process, you will tirelessly complete forms about almost every area of your life. You will have an opportunity to write statements about your work and most likely have to complete a “work history report”.  Read the questions carefully, think about them carefully and answer them in as much detail as possible. If you have an attorney, you may wish to have your attorney review your responses. You can be assured that the Social Security Administration will pay close attention to your responses.
  2. If you have to attend a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, you will have an opportunity to answer questions about your prior work.  Similar to #1 above, this is your opportunity to express exactly what kind of work you performed, the demands of your jobs and why you think you cannot perform the job any longer.  If you have an attorney, you will likely review questions that you will be asked before your hearing.
  3. Sometimes at hearings, a “Vocational Expert” will appear to offer testimony characterizing your past work.  You (or your attorney) will have an opportunity to question and clarify the Vocational Expert's testimony. It is important to listen closely to what the vocational expert says about your past work.  His or her testimony can make or break a case. If something is not correct, speak up and let the Judge know or let your attorney know.

Step 4 of the disability process is a very important step. Once you get past this step, Social Security has the burden of showing that you can perform other jobs. Depending on the nature of your disability it is sometimes easy to move past Step 4. However, we very often help with cases Step 4 is the only barrier to receiving Social Security Disability benefits. If you have any questions about any aspect of your claim, please do not hesitate to contact our office for a free case evaluation!