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February 27, 1979: Birth of the Grid: Part 1 of 3 Bobby H. Kirk, James C. Stallings, James Leonard,

In the late 1970s the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services developed a new system for determining who is and is not disabled for purposes of giving Social Security Disability benefits. These were, and still are, referred to as the “Medical-Vocational Guidelines” or more commonly “the Grid.” The Grid was developed at the behest of Congress which was concerned that very similar disability claimants were often treated very differently. It is, and was, a grid that factors in a Claimant’s Age, Educational Background, and Prior Work Experience to determine whether they are disabled or not. The prior work experience is categorized into Unskilled Work, Semi-Skilled Work, and Skilled Work. In addition their Residual Functional Capacity (the level of work they can perform or what they can physically do on a job despite any impairment or impairment(s)) is also factored in and categorized as either Sedentary Work, Light Work, or Medium Work.

After the Social Security Administration conducted the required public comment period and the required rule making procedures, the Grid went into effect on February 27, 1979. Soon after a suit was filed arguing that the Grid violated both the Social Security Act and the United States Constitution.

Arguments the Grid Violated the Social Security Act

First, the challengers claimed that the Grid impermissibly amended the Social Security Act by altering the burden of proof on Step Five. This is the final step in the Five Step Sequential Process that is the basic framework for deciding Social Security Disability claims. In this step the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) must prove that there are jobs somewhere in the national economy in significant numbers that the Claimant could perform. At the time, some Courts used a Vocational Expert to prove this. Others did not. The new regulations surrounding the Grid did not require that the Court use a Vocational Expert to prove this. The Challengers in this case argued that this switched the burden so that it was not the Claimant who had to prove something (there are no jobs in the national economy in significant numbers that they could perform) as opposed to the Judge (there are jobs in the national economy in significant numbers that they could perform).

So if there is no Vocational Expert how does the Judge prove there are jobs out in the national economy in significant numbers that the Claimant could perform?

This is a well-thought out and reasoned decision. This is its only weak point. The Court says there does not have to be a Vocational Expert. They indirectly say that the Judge can prove Step Five by the information about the Claimant that is in the Grid. The Court further expounds that the Social Security Administration has such authority to make such regulations, including those that shift burdens, and that the Grid was consistent with the Social Security Act and Congress’s directive to the Social Security Administration. The weak part of this argument is saying that no Vocational Expert is required for Step Five. The jump in logic from a Claimant’s Grid information to whether jobs exist in significant jobs in the national economy is a fairly long jump. However, the Court here was presented with Constitutional issues and Statutory Violations. It is important to note that sometimes government promulgated rules and regulations might not always be the best thing in a perfect world. However they can still be Constitutionaly and Statutorily permissible. On the plus side more happens with the Grid and the Vocational Expert in the almost 40 years that follow this decision. I will write about them in another entry.

Second, the challengers claimed that the Grid impermissibly amended the Social Security Act by “limiting individualized adjudication.” They argued that in the Grid each claimant is not treated like an individual or in other words all of the individual facts and circumstances unique to them and their case are not considered. The Court rules against this argument saying that the Grid is not an assembly line but actually a fairly complex map with different roads, mountains, valleys, and rivers on which Claimant’s can find a mode of transportation and a route to disability that does take many different factors into consideration. They give various examples which I won't address here.

An upcoming entry will address the Constitutional Arguments against the Grid.


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