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Congress confers on the Secretary Health and Human Services (Secretary) exceptionally broad authority to prescribe standards for applying certain sections of the Social Security Act (Act), 49 Stat. 620. The Act authorizes the Secretary to adopt reasonable and proper rules and regulations to regulate and provide for the nature and extent of the proofs and evidence and the method of taking and furnishing the same in disability cases. 42 U.S.C.S. § 405(a) of the Act, 49 Stat. 620. Where the statute expressly entrusts the Secretary with the responsibility for implementing a provision by regulation, the court's review is limited to determining whether the regulations promulgated exceeded the Secretary's statutory authority and whether they are arbitrary and capricious. Both the language of the Act and its legislative history support the Secretary's decision to require disability claimants to make a threshold showing that their "medically determinable" impairments are severe enough to satisfy the regulatory standards.
A claimant in the state of Washington applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits, alleging that she was disabled by an inner ear dysfunction, dizzy spells, headaches, an inability to focus her eyes, and flat feet. The claimant, aged 45, had attended business college for 2 years, had received real-estate training, and had been employed as a travel agent and a real-estate salesperson. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services found that she was not disabled. This finding was upheld by an administrative law judge (ALJ) of the Bureau of Hearings and Appeals of the Social Security Administration (SSA), who evaluated the claim under a five-step sequential procedure for determining disability. This procedure, established under a federal regulation ( 20 CFR 404.1520, 416.920), allowed a claimant to be found not disabled at "step two" if, without considering vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education, and work experience, it was determined that the claimant did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities ( 20 CFR 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). Without considering vocational factors, the ALJ concluded at "step two" that although the claimant suffered from episodes of dizziness or visual problems, her medical impairments were not severe under the terms of 20 CFR 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The SSA's Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review, and the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington affirmed the denial of her claim. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that a provision of the Social Security Act (42 USCS 423(d)(2)(A)) which provided that a claimant was deemed to be disabled if his or her impairment or impairments were of such severity that the claimant not only was unable to do his or her previous work, but cannot, considering his or her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work, required that not only medical but also vocational factors be considered in determining disability. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals invalidated 20 CFR 404.1520(c) on its face. A writ of certiorari was granted.
Was the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ “severity regulation” invalid on its face, and could not therefore be used as a basis to deny benefits?
The Supreme Court observed that 68 Stat. 1080 of the Social Security Act (Act), 49 Stat. 620, codified at 42 U.S.C.S. § 423(d)(1)(A), defined disability in terms of the effect a physical or mental impairment has on a person's ability to function in the workplace, and the severity regulation adopted that functional approach to determining the effects of medical impairments. Furthermore, the Supreme Court held that the Secretary had express statutory authority to place the burden of showing a medically determinable impairment on the claimant pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. § 423(d)(5)(A) (1982). Finally, the Supreme Court held that § 4 of the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act, 98 Stat. 1800, disclosed Congress' expressed approval of the facial validity of the severity regulation. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed and held that the Secretary's severity regulation was approved by Congress in recent amendments to the Social Security Act, and therefore facially valid. The case was remanded for the Court of Appeals to consider whether the Secretary's decision was supported by substantial evidence.