Sullivan v. Zebley (1990)

The regulations governing eligiblity for child disability issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services are inconsistent with the statutory standard of comparable severity. Children are not given the same opportunity as adults to show their functional impairment in the late states of the determination process.

Citation: 493 U.S. 521 (1990)
Date decided: Feb 20, 1990
Longer case name: Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Zebley et al.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Pennsylvania
Topic(s):Disability: Benefits, Disability: Child, and Enforcement
Lists:Important cases and zGreatest hits (future)
Attorneys:Richard P. Weishaupt argued the cause for respondents. With him on the briefs were Jonathan M. Stein and Thomas D. Sutton. (Community Legal Services, Philadelphia)
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts et al. by James M. Shannon, Attorney General of Massachusetts, and Suzanne E. Durrell and Judith Fabricant, Assistant Attorneys General, Don Siegelman, Attorney General of Alabama, Douglas B. Baily, Attorney General of Alaska, Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General of Arizona, John Steven Clark, Attorney General of Arkansas, Clarine Nardi Riddle, Acting Attorney General of Connecticut, Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware, Herbert O. Reid, Sr., Acting Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia, and Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corporation Counsel, Neil F. Hartigan, Attorney General of Illinois, Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana, Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General of Iowa, Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas, William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota, William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri, Marc Racicot, Attorney General of Montana, Robert M. Spire, Attorney General of Nebraska, John P. Arnold, Attorney General of New Hampshire, Robert Abrams, Attorney General of New York, Ernest D. Preate, Jr., Attorney General of Pennsylvania, James E. O’Neil, Attorney General of Rhode Island, Roger A. Tellinghuisen, Attorney General of South Dakota, Charles W. Burson, Attorney General of Tennessee, Jim Mattox, Attorney General of Texas, R. Paul Van Dam, Attorney General of Utah, Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Attorney General of Vermont, and Joseph B. Meyer, Attorney General of Wyoming; for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry et al. by Leonard S. Rubenstein; for the American Medical Association et al. by Carter G. Phillips, Elizabeth H. Esty, Jack R. Bierig, and Stephan E. Lawton; for the National Easter Seal Society et al. by Robert E. Lehrer; for Pennsylvania Protection and Advocacy et al. by Janet F. Stotland and Robin Resnick; for the Children’s Defense Fund et al. by Alice Bussiere, Marilyn Holle, and James D. Weill; and for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives by Robert E. Rains and Nancy G. Shor. James Bopp, Jr., and Thomas J. Marzen filed a brief for the Medical Issues Task Force of the United Handicapped Federation et al. as amici curiae.
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Case Importance

Because of this case, hundreds of thousands of families with disabled children now receive Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)



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.


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” [493 U.S. 521, 522] 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, affirmed.

Last modified: 2023-01-20 03:49
Case internal grade: A | Case internal status: OK |
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