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Joyce v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 22, 2014

KEVIN L. JOYCE
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

For KEVIN L. JOYCE, Plaintiff: JASON L. THOMPSON, LEAD ATTORNEY, LEVENTHAL, SUTTON & GORNSTEIN, HORIZON CORPORATE CENTER, TREVOSE, PA.

For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SSA, Defendant: ANDREW C. LYNCH, SSA/OGC REGION 3, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JACOB P. HART, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Kevin Joyce brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. He has filed a Request for Review to which the Commissioner has responded. As set forth below, I recommend that Joyce's Request for Review be denied, and judgment entered in favor of the Defendant.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Joyce was born on February 6, 1953. Record at 137. He completed high school and college. Record at 151. In the past, he worked for many years as a truck driver, but also for six years as a high school social studies teacher. Id. On August 12, 2010, Joyce filed an application for benefits, alleging disability since May 9, 2009, as a result of injury to his left shoulder, left arm, back, neck, pelvis, and both knees, as well as the partial amputation of his right thumb. Record at 137, 151.

Joyce's application was denied on November 18, 2010. Record at 83. He then sought de novo review by an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ"). Record at 90. A hearing took place on January 4, 2012. Record at 50. In a written decision dated January 20, 2012, however, the ALJ denied benefits. Record at 38. The Appeals Council denied Joyce's request for review, permitting the ALJ's decision to stand as the final decision of the Commissioner. Record at 29. Joyce then filed this action.

II. Legal Standards

The role of this court on judicial review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is relevant evidence viewed objectively as adequate to support a decision. Richardson v. Perales, supra at 401; Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775 (3d Cir. 1987); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403 (3d Cir. 1979). Moreover, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court must also ensure that the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. Coria v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 245 (3d Cir. 1984).

To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some " medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any 'substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). As explained in the following agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step process:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. (ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. (iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. (iv). At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. (v). At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (references to other regulations omitted).

III. The ALJ's Decision and Joyce's Request for Review

In his decision, the ALJ determined that Joyce suffered from the severe impairments of " left shoulder rotator cuff tendinopathy, degenerative joint disease on the left shoulder's AC joint, history of bilateral knee surgery, status post-arthroscopic surgery on the left shoulder, history of ocular migraine headaches, partial amputation of the right thumb, and history of left elbow injury." Record at 40. He found that none of Joyce's impairments, and no combination of impairments, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Record at 41.

The ALJ found that Joyce retained the RFC to engage in light work, limited by the need to use ramps, climb stairs, kneel crouch or crawl only occasionally, and never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. Id. He could not do any work with his left arm, nor could he use his right thumb for " fine manipulations or safety." Id. He was required to avoid even moderate exposure to hazards such as machinery or heights. Id.

At the fourth stage of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ decided that Joyce was capable of performing his past relevant work as a teacher. Record at 45. Alternatively, Joyce could perform other light work as an office helper, rental clerk or mailroom clerk. Record at 46. In so deciding, the ALJ relied upon the testimony of a vocational expert who appeared at the hearing. The ALJ concluded that Joyce was not disabled.

In his Request for Review, Joyce argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that he could return to his past work as a teacher, because the partial amputation of his right thumb prevented him from doing the necessary handling and fingering. He also maintains that, because it was not shown that his job skills transferred to the alternative light jobs identified, he was entitled to benefits under " Grid" Rule 202.06. 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 at § 202.06.

IV. Discussion

A. Handling and Fingering

In his RFC assessment, the ALJ found that Joyce was limited as a result of the partial amputation of his right thumb, but only in that he could not use that thumb for fine manipulation or safety. Record at 45. This was the conclusion reached by Gregory Mortimer, MD, a reviewing agency expert, in his RFC assessment. Record at 536. The vocational expert testified at the hearing that, given Joyce's RFC assessment, he could return to his prior work as a social studies teacher. Record at 71. The ALJ asked the vocational expert whether her testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (" DOT"), and she responded that it was. Record at 72. Thus, the ALJ determination that Joyce's impairment with regard to his thumb would not prevent him from returning to his former work was supported by substantial evidence, both medical and vocational.

Joyce argues that the vocational expert's testimony was actually inconsistent with the specification in the DOT that the job of teacher requires frequent handling and occasional fingering. He argues: " Reversal is necessary for this reason alone." Leaving aside the question of whether the ALJ's reliance on mistaken vocational testimony would warrant reversal, it is crucial here that the RFC did not preclude Joyce from all handling and fingering. He precluded fine manipulation (the equivalent of fingering) only with the right thumb. Joyce is unlimited in the use of his left hand for handling and fingering. He has not disputed this, and there is no medical or vocational evidence to the contrary. He can also assist with his four unimpaired right fingers. Accordingly, Joyce has not succeeded in showing that there was truly a conflict between the DOT and the testimony of the vocational expert.

In his reply memorandum, Joyce maintains that handling and fingering must be bilateral. He cites SSR 83-14 which reads in relevant part: " bilateral manual dexterity is necessary for the performance of substantially all unskilled sedentary occupations", and SSR 96-9p: " Most unskilled sedentary jobs require good use of both hands and the fingers; i.e., bilateral manual dexterity."

Teaching, however, is not an unskilled sedentary occupation. The cited authority, therefore, is not on point. Joyce argues: " While these rulings specifically address sedentary work, there is no reason to think that light work requires anything other than the bimanual dexterity required by sedentary work." However, there is a fairly obvious reason. Much unskilled sedentary work involves assembly. The light, skilled work of teaching does not. The success of a social studies teacher is not assessed by the speed and dexterity with which he hands out worksheets.

B. Grid Rule 202.06

The ALJ's conclusion at stage four of the sequential analysis that Joyce could return to his prior work as a social studies teacher was well-supported by substantial evidence. For this reason, it is not necessary to examine the ALJ's alternative conclusion at stage five.

V. Conclusion

In accordance with the above discussion, I make the following

RECOMMENDATION

AND NOW, this 22nd day of December, 2014, it is RESPECTFULLY RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's Request for Review be DENIED, and judgment granted in favor of the Defendant.


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