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In Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20 (2003), the Supreme Court held that past relevant work (PRW) does not have to exist in significant numbers in the national economy to be considered at Step 4 of the Social Security sequential evaluation.

Here is the story: Pauline Thomas worked as an elevator operator for six years, until her job was eliminated. She eventually 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 significant numbers in the national economy, she could not return to her past relevant work.

The Court had to interpret 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(2), 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’s finding that the claimant could return to her previous work, even though those jobs don’t exist in significant numbers anymore.

The holding of the Thomas case remains in force. The phrase “which exists in the national economy” does not apply to past relevant work, so there is no requirement that a past job exist in significant numbers. As a practical matter however, by reducing the past relevant work period to 5 years, Social Security will rarely need to consider obselete jobs like elevator operator as PRW. That was one of the stated goals of the rule change.