Barnhart v. Thomas

PETITIONER: Jo Anne B. Barnhart, Commissioner of Social Security
RESPONDENT: Pauline Thomas
LOCATION: Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 02-763
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 540 US 20 (2003)
GRANTED: Feb 24, 2003
ARGUED: Oct 14, 2003
DECIDED: Nov 12, 2003

Abraham S. Alter - argued the cause for Respondent
Jeffrey A. Lamken - argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

After a heart attack left her unable to continue working as a housekeeper in the late 1980s, Pauline Thomas took a job as an elevator operator. By the mid- 1990s, however, Thomas's job and others like it were eliminated as elevators became automated. Thomas applied for Social Security disability benefits because she could not do other work. The Social Security Administration (SSA), however, rejected her claim because, it said, she was still able to perform the duties of her former position. The fact that it was nearly impossible to find such a position, the SSA held, did not entitle her to benefits under disability law. An administrative judge and a federal district court both upheld the SSA's position, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that "a claimant's previous work must be substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy."


Are persons eligible for Social Security disability benefits if they are still able to perform their jobs, but the jobs no longer exists in meaningful numbers in the national economy?

Media for Barnhart v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 14, 2003 in Barnhart v. Thomas

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - November 12, 2003 in Barnhart v. Thomas

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-763, Barnhart against Thomas will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United Stated Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The Social Security Act provides that a person is disabled and thereby eligible for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income “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.”

The respondent here, Pauline Thomas, was denied benefits because the Social Security Administration concluded that she was able to perform her previous work as an elevator operator.

Rejecting as irrelevant her claim that that particular job is not substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, a phrase that is defined to mean work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where the claimant lives or in several regions of the country.

Thomas sought review of the administration’s ruling in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey which affirm the agency.

Upon her appeal however, the Untied States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and ordered the case remanded to the agency.

In the Third Circuit’s view, the statutory definition of disability unambiguously provides that a claimant is disqualified by her ability to do her previous work only if that work is substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

We granted the Social Security Administration’s petition for certiorari and now reverse.

The statutory definition of disability establishes two requirements: first, an impairment must render an individual unable to do his previous work, and second, it must also preclude him from “engaging in any other kind of substantial gainful work.”

Now, the parties agree that the latter requirement is qualified by the clause that immediately follows it.

The clause reads which exists in the national economy.

The issue in this case is whether the clause also qualifies previous work.

The Social Security Administration’s regulations answer that question in the negative.

The administration will find not disabled, a claimant who can do his previous work without inquiring whether those work exists in the national economy.

We conclude that this interpretation is a reasonable one and hence, must be accorded deference under Chevron versus National Resources Defense Council.

The agency’s interpretation accords with the grammatical so-called rule of the last antecedent according to which a limiting clause or phrase, here, the relative clause 'which exists in the national economy' should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.

Here, any other kind of substantial gainful work and not the earlier possible antecedent, previous work.

The Third Circuit suggested that the administration’s interpretation would lead to absurd results because a claimant maybe denied benefits on the basis on a finding that he is able to do work that no longer exists.

But this conclusion gives too little credence to the rational offered by the Social Security Administration.

The administration considers the claimant’s physical and mental ability to perform his old work.

A proxy for the claimant’s capacity to perform some form of work that does exists.

Almost all of the time, the ability to do one job will demonstrate the ability to do others.

Such a proxy is useful because if a claimant cannot be determined not disabled by reason of visibility to do his previous job, then the administration must proceed to the more difficult and time consuming inquiry into whether given the claimant’s age, education, and work experience, his cumulative impairments preclude him form finding other work.

Because the administration’s interpretation is sensible and not precluded by the text of the statute is entitled to deference even though it may have some unfortunate consequences in some individual cases.

The Third Circuit’s interpretation, we point out, may also have some peculiar consequences since it would give benefits to an impaired worker who could go back to his old job but chooses not to, if that particular job does not exists in substantial numbers in the economy.

For these reason, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The Court’s decision is unanimous.