Sullivan v. Zebley

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Sullivan v. Zebley by Harry Blackmun
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

493 U.S. 521

Sullivan  v.  Zebley

No. 88-1377  Argued: Nov. 28, 1989. --- Decided: Feb 20, 1990


The Social Security Act authorizes the payment of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to, inter alios, a child who suffers from an impairment of "comparable severity" to one that would render an adult disabled. An adult is disabled if he is prevented from engaging in any substantial gainful activity by reason of certain medically determinable physical or mental impairments. Petitioner Secretary of Health and Human Services has created a five-step test to determine adult disability. At the test's third step, a claimant may be found to be disabled if medical evidence of his impairment matches or is equal to one of a listing of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful activity, thus making further inquiry unnecessary. However, since the listings' medical criteria are more restrictive than the statutory disability standard, an adult claimant who does not qualify at the third step may do so after showing, at the fourth and fifth steps, that he cannot engage in his past work or other work in the economy, given his age, education, and work experience. In contrast, the Secretary's test for determining whether a child claimant is disabled ends if the claimant cannot show that his impairment matches or is equal to a listed impairment, there being no further inquiry corresponding to the final, vocational steps of the adult test. Respondent Zebley, a child who was denied SSI benefits, brought a class action in the District Court challenging the child-disability regulations. The court granted summary judgment for the Secretary. The Court of Appeals vacated the judgment in part, finding the regulatory scheme to be inconsistent with the Act because the listings-only approach does not account for all impairments of "comparable severity" and denies child claimants the individualized functional assessment that the statutory standard requires and that the Secretary provides to adults.

Held: The child-disability regulations are inconsistent with the statutory standard of "comparable severity." Pp. 528-541.

(a) While adults who do not qualify under the listings still have the opportunity to show that they are disabled at the last steps of the Secretary's test, no similar opportunity exists for children, who are denied benefits even if their impairments are of "comparable severity" to ones that would actually (though not presumptively) disable adults. Pp. 529-536.

(b) The Secretary's regulatory scheme-which applies the same approach to child-disability claimants and to claimants for widows' and widowers' Social Security disability benefits, despite the fact that the Act uses a stricter standard for widows' benefits-nullifies the congressional choice to link the child-disability standard to the more liberal test applied to adult disability claims. Pp. 536-537.

(c) The Secretary's argument that the listings-only approach is the only practicable way to determine whether a child's impairment is comparable to one that would disable an adult is rejected. Even if they were set at the statutory level of severity, no set of listings could ensure that child claimants would receive benefits whenever their impairments are of comparable severity to ones that would qualify an adult for benefits under the individualized functional analysis contemplated by the statute and provided to adults. That a vocational analysis is inapplicable to children does not mean that a functional analysis cannot be applied to them, since an inquiry into an impairment's impact on a child's normal daily activities is no more amorphous or unmanageable than an inquiry into the impact of an adult's impairment on his ability to perform any kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the economy. Moreover, the Secretary tacitly acknowledges that functional assessment of child claimants is possible in that some of his own listings are defined in terms of functional criteria, and the test for cessation of disability involves an examination of a child claimant's ability to perform age-appropriate activities. Pp. 538-541.

855 F.2d 67 (CA3 1988), affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. 541.

Edwin S. Kneedler, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Richard P. Weishaupt, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondents.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).