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JOHNSON v. HECKLER

September 19, 1984

EDNA JOHNSON AND JEROME MONTGOMERY, ON THEIR OWN BEHALF AND ON BEHALF OF OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED,. PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARGARET HECKLER, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bua, District Judge.

ORDER

Plaintiffs in this class action are or have been applicants for or recipients of disability benefits under Title II and/or Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). They have been denied benefits on the ground that their disabilities are not severe enough to prevent them from working. They challenge the validity of the applicable regulations, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c), 404.1522, 416.922 (1983) and Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 82-55 (cum. ed. 1982), as violative of the Act and the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The defendant is the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS"), who administers the Old-Age and Survivors Disability Insurance ("OASDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") programs through the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), and promulgates regulations and rulings interpreting the applicable statute.

Plaintiffs submitted a motion for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The Secretary submitted a cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is granted and the Secretary's cross-motion is denied.

I. THE CHALLENGED REGULATIONS AND THE ACT

Plaintiffs challenge the above regulations on two grounds: (1) 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c) do not consider vocational factors (age, education, and work experience) and residual functional capacities; and (2) 404.1522, 416.922, and SSR 82-55 do not combine "nonsevere" impairments. Before proceeding to consider the validity of these regulations, an overview of the regulations and the Act is helpful.

The OASDI and SSI programs provide for the payment of benefits to disabled persons. Under both programs, a person is considered disabled if he or she is unable

  to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
  reason of any medically determinable physical or
  mental impairment which can be expected to result
  in death or which has lasted or can be expected
  to last for a continuous period of not less than
  12 months . . .

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act provides that "for purposes of" applying this definition, 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. . . .

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Secretary is authorized to establish rules and regulations, consistent with the Act, governing the determination of disability claims. 42 U.S.C. § 405(a) & 1383(d)(1).

Pursuant to this authority, the Secretary established a five-step sequential procedure for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (1983). Under the existing regulations, if the claimant is found not to be disabled under any one of the sequential tests, the analysis ends and the remaining steps of the analysis are not completed. See §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). As the first step, the Secretary ascertains whether the claimant is working; if so, a finding of "not disabled" follows. In the second step, the Secretary determines, solely on the basis of medical factors, whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment which "significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The regulation specifically provides that at this second step the Secretary "will not consider your age, education, and work experience." Plaintiff's first ground relates to this refusal to consider vocational factors in the second step and the resulting possibility that vocational factors will be foreclosed if the inquiry stops after the second step.

If the claimant is determined to have a "severe" impairment under this definition, the Secretary next considers (Step 3) whether the impairment is one which is listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations; if so, the claimant is found to be disabled without requirement of further proof that the impairment prevents him from working. The fourth step comes into play if the claimant's impairment, though deemed "severe" under the second step, is not a "listed" impairment under the third step. In cases, the Secretary determines (Step 5) whether, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, his impairment prevents him from doing any other work available in the national economy. If the claimant cannot, he is found to be disabled and his claim is approved. See Canon v. Harris, 651 F.2d 513, 517 (7th Cir. 1981).

The Secretary acknowledges that the effect of the sequential procedure is that denials of claims at the second step occur "on the basis of medical considerations alone." SSR 82-56 (cum. ed. 1982). To implement this policy, SSR 82-55 lists 20 impairments which are nonsevere per se on the basis of medical evidence alone. SSR 82-55 is binding on all SSA personnel, including administrative law judges and the Appeals Council.

The challenged regulations, 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1522 and 416.922 (1983) provide: "We will consider the combined effects of unrelated impairments only if all are severe." In addition to these regulations, SSR 82-55 instructs Social Security administrators not to consider the combined effects of nonsevere impairments because inasmuch "as a nonsevere impairment is one which does not significantly limit basic work-related functions, neither will a ...


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