Social Security Disability Analysis Step 4: Can You Perform Your Past Relevant Work?

Attorney D. Scott Gordon > Frequently Asked Questions > Social Security Disability > Social Security Disability Analysis Step 4: Can You Perform Your Past Relevant Work?

At step 4 in its sequential evaluation process, the SSA’s Administrative Law judge (“ALJ”) determines whether a Claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her prior relevant work. “Prior Relevant Work” includes all gainful work performed by a Claimant within the last 15 years, provided that the employee worked in the position long enough to learn the job. Unlike some workers’ compensation or long-term disability decision considerations, the SSA standard usually means that an ALJ is considering your ability to perform not only your most recent job, but also, all other jobs that you have performed over the past 15 years. In other words, a person that has experience at a desk job might be expected to return to desk work even though their last job required substantially more standing and lifting.

A Claimant’s RFC represents his or her capacity to perform work-related physical and mental activities on a regular and continuing basis. In determining a Claimant’s RFC, the ALJ looks at a Claimant’s functional limitations and restrictions, such as lifting, standing, walking, sitting, movement, and manipulative restrictions. The ALJ also may evaluate non-exertional limitations such as comprehension, concentration or memory deficits. Following a function by function assessment of work-related abilities, the ALJ typically expresses a final RFC in terms of exertional categories, such as an ability to perform heavy, medium, light, sedentary or less than sedentary work.

Once the ALJ sets the Claimant’s RFC, the RFC is cross-referenced with the physical requirements of each prior relevant position, as set forth in the Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). For example, if your prior relevant work is listed as a “light” position in the DOT and the ALJ assigns you a “light” RFC, then the ALJ assumes that you can return to prior work. You therefore are not disabled for SSDI/SSI purposes. Alternatively, if your prior relevant work is “light” but the ALJ assigns a “sedentary” RFC, then the ALJ must assume that you cannot perform your prior work. In such case, the disability analysis proceeds to Step 5 of the evaluation analysis.