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The Social Security Administration ("SSA") disability evaluation process is a five-step sequential evaluation process (20 CFR 416.920(a)).
The steps are followed in order. If it is determined you are or are not disabled at any step of the evaluation process, the evaluation will not go on to the next step.
At step one, the ALJ must determine whether you are engaging in substantial gainful activity (20 CFR 416.920(b)). Substantial gainful activity ("SGA") is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful. "Substantial work activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities (20 CFR 416.972(a)). "Gainful work activity" is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized (20 CFR 416.972(b)). Generally, if you have earnings from employment or self-employment above a specific level set out in the regulations, it is presumed that you have demonstrated the ability to engage in SGA (20 CFR 416.974, and 416.975). If you engage in SGA you are not disabled regardless of how severe your physical or mental impairments are and regardless of your age, education, and work experience. If you are not engaging in SGA, the analysis proceeds to the second step.
At step two, the ALJ must determine whether you have a medically determinable impairment that is "severe" or a combination of impairments that are "severe" (20 CFR 416.920(c)). A medically determinable impairment can only be established by an acceptable medical source (20 CFR 416.913(a)). An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" within the meaning of the regulations if it significantly limits your ability to perform basic work activities. An impairment or combination of impairments is "not severe" when medical or other evidence establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on your ability to work (20 CFR 416.921; Social Security Rulings (SSRs) 85-28, 96-3p, and 96-4p). If you do not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, you are not disabled. If you have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the analysis proceeds to the third step.
At step three, the ALJ must determine whether your impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). If your impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and meets the duration requirement (20 CFR 416.909), then you are disabled. This is very hard to do. If it does not, the analysis proceeds to the next step.
Before considering step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ must first determine your residual functional capacity (20 CFR 416.920(d)). Your residual functional capacity is your ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from your impairments. In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all of your impairments, including impairments that are not severe (20 CFR 416.945(e); SSR 96-8p). The ALJ must consider all relevant medical and no-medical evidence in the case record (20 CFR 416.945, 416.912(b), and 416.929).
Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists, or other acceptable medical sources, that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairments, including your symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis, and what you can still do despite the impairments, and physical or mental restrictions (20 CFR 416.927(a)(1)). If an opinion as to the nature and severity of your impairments is from a treating medical source who is an acceptable medical source, is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and diagnostic techniques, and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, it is given controlling weight (20 CFR 416.927(d)(2)). When a treating medical source opinion is not given controlling weight, the factors outlined in the succeeding paragraphs are applied (Id.)
At step four, the ALJ must determine whether you have the residual functional capacity to perform the requirements of your past relevant work (20 CFR 404.120(f) and 416.920(f)). The term past relevant work means work performed (either you actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy) within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established. In addition, the work must have lasted long enough for you to learn to do the job and have been SGA (20 CFR 416.960(b), and 416.965). If you have the residual functional capacity to do your past relevant work, you are not disabled. If you are unable to do any past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and last step.
At step five, the last step, of the sequential evaluation process (20 CFR 416.920(g)), the ALJ must determine whether you are able to do any other work considering your residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. If you are able to do other work, you are not disabled. If you are not able to do other work and meet the duration requirement, you are disabled. Although you generally continue to have the burden of proving disability at this step, a limited burden of going forward with the evidence shifts to the SSA. In order to support a finding that you are not disabled at this step, the SSA is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that you can do, given the residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience (20 CFR 416.912(g) and 416.960(c)).