After the ALJ makes a determination as to the work restrictions that he feels to be credible (your residual functional capacity) and he has determined that these limitations preclude you from returning to your past relevant work, you move on to the final step in the Sequential Evaluation Process. At this Step, the Administration must show that there are a significant number of jobs you could do in the economy. If the SSA cannot establish that there are a significant number of jobs that you can do, then you meet the requirements for disability.
The Burden Is On The Administration To Show Other Jobs
From a legal standpoint, one of the key differences with this final step of the process is that the Social Security Administration has the burden of proof in establishing that there are a significant number of jobs available to you in the economy. During the first four steps, it is the claimant who must present proof enough to establish that there are severe medical impairments, the extent to which these impairments impact her and that it precludes her returning to past work. However, once that is established, the Administration must show that there are not a significant number of jobs in either the regions the claimant is in or in several other regions of the country to which the claimant could adjust. See 20 CFR 404.1566 (http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/404/404-1566.htm).
Proving Availability Of Other Jobs
Not surprisingly, the Administration has given itself several legal tools that can be used to establish whether or not significant other work exists in the economy and to make a determination at Step 5. The ALJ can meet this burden by relying on either the Medical-Vocational rules “The Grid,” certain Social Security Rulings concerning the effect of non-exertional limitations (like mental illness) or testimony by a vocational expert.
“Significant Number Of Jobs”
It is worth noting that the Administration should find you disabled where there are not a “significant number” of jobs in the region or several regions of the country. The “region” is typically interpreted as being the state in which you reside. Unfortunately, there is no bright line test for how many jobs constitute a “significant” number. What “significant” means has been the source of a good number of appeals to Federal District Court. I am aware of District Court cases in Tennessee that have upheld 1000 jobs as being significant. I can also say from my work as an attorney in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, I have seen ALJs find as few as 500 jobs in the entire state to be “significant.”
Jobs In The Economy, Not Job Openings
Importantly, the Administration does not consider whether there are actually any jobs openings that you could perform in the economy. Instead, the ALJs merely look at the number of positions that exists in the economy (filled or unfilled) that they think you could do. This at times results in deeply troubling results. Take for example the instances above where ALJs have found 500 to 1000 jobs in a state to be “significant.” Of the 500 jobs listed there will be only a handful of positions available to which a claimant could apply. Of these 500 jobs there may only be 5 or 6 openings in a year. Additionally, these numbers look at the entire state. So, for a claimant living in Jackson, Tennessee the 500 jobs listed at the hearing may actually be located in the Knoxville area (some 300+ miles away). Ultimately, this results in situations where the claimant can be denied benefits because she is determined to be capable of performing work that there is no practical chance for her to ever get.