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This article is the last in a series regarding how your previous work can affect your Social Security disability claim. We complete the series with an opinion from the highest court in the land, because there is actually a U.S. Supreme Court case regarding "previous work" in a Social Security disability claim. The case is Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20 (2003).

Pauline Thomas worked as an elevator operator for six years, until her job was eliminated. She applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. After a hearing, an administrative law judge denied her disability claim, finding that Ms. Thomas had the capacity to return to her past relevant work as an elevator operator. The judge rejected the claimant's argument that, since jobs as an elevator operator no longer exist in substantial numbers in the national economy, she could not return to her past relevant work.

The claim went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the seventh level of review available for a Social Security disability claim (count 'em: 1-initial review, 2-reconsideration, 3-hearing by an ALJ, 4-Appeals Council review, 5-U.S. District Court, 6-U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and 7-U.S. Supreme Court).

The Court had to interpret 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(1)(A), which states in part:

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy… "work which exists in the national economy” means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

At issue was whether the phrase "which exists in the national economy" applies to previous work, or only applies to other work. The Court decided 9-0 that the phrase did not apply to previous work. As a result, the Court upheld the SSA finding that the claimant could return to her previous work, even though those jobs don't exist anymore.

So at step 4 of Social Security's sequential evaluation process, all the SSA does is match your physical and mental abilities to the physical and mental requirements of your past work.