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Awad v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 8, 2017

CARMEN M. AWAD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TIMOTHY R. RICE, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Carmen Awad alleges the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) legally erred in denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). See Pl.'s Br. (doc. 11) at 3-9. Because Awad does not challenge the ALJ's fact findings, I accept those findings as true for purposes of this case and focus on the ALJ's legal determination. For the following reasons, I deny Awad's request for review.

         In September 2012, Awad sought DIB, alleging she had been disabled since April 2011. See Admin. Record (doc. 10) (“R.”) at 10. During a December 2014 hearing before the ALJ, Awad testified about her: eleventh-grade education; past work as a sewing machine operator; pain in her low back, knees, neck, hands, and arms; treatment; and daily activities. Id. at 47-61.

         The ALJ also called a vocational expert (“VE”) to testify about the availability of unskilled, “light work” jobs in the national economy for someone of Awad's age, education level, and work history.[1] Id. at 66-67. The ALJ further limited the jobs to: (1) no more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing ramps and stairs; (2) no climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; (3) frequent reaching, handling, fingering, and feeling; (4) no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; and (5) no more than occasional exposure to weather, extreme cold, wetness, or vibration. Id. The VE identified at least three jobs with those restrictions: (1) cleaner, housekeeper; (2) cafeteria assistant; and (3) potato chip sorter. Id. at 66-67.

         The ALJ next added more stringent restrictions: (1) lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time; (2) occasionally lifting and carrying items such as docket files, ledgers, and small tools; and (3) occasional reaching, handling, fingering, and feeling.[2] Id. at 67. The VE identified two available jobs: (1) usher; and (2) bakery worker/conveyor line. Id. at 67-68.

         On September 2, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion denying Awad's DIB application. Id. at 10-24. Applying the five-step sequential analysis, [3] the ALJ explained Awad had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. Id. at 12. The ALJ then found Awad suffered from the following severe impairments: “carpal tunnel syndrome (bilateral) and status post carpal tunnel release surgeries, status post right shoulder injection, status post right trigger release surgery, hypertension, patella spur of the left knee, lumbar spine degenerative change, obesity, and diabetes mellitus.”[4] Id. The ALJ, however, determined that none of these impairments, when considered alone or in combination, met the criteria for one of the listed impairments in the Social Security Regulations.[5] Id. at 13-14.

         The ALJ next found Awad had the RFC to perform unskilled, light work with the more stringent limitations described in the ALJ's second hypothetical question to the VE. Id. at 14-15; see also supra at 1-2. The ALJ determined that, based on this RFC, Awad could not perform her past relevant work as a sewing machine operator. Id. at 22.

         The ALJ then considered Awad's vocational factors relevant to her ability to perform other work in the national economy. Id. at 22. He noted that although Awad was a “younger individual” during the relevant time period, she later became a person “closely approaching advanced age.”[6] Id. at 22. The ALJ also noted that Awad had a limited education and could communicate in English. Id. He found that Awad's transferability of job skills was not material to his determination because Awad would not be disabled under the Medical-Vocational Rules (“Grids”) regardless of whether she had transferable job skills.[7] Id.

         Based on Awad's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Awad could perform. Id. at 22-24. The ALJ explained that Awad would not be disabled pursuant to the Grids if she had the RFC to perform the full range of light duty work. Id. at 23. He noted, however, that Awad's ability to perform light duty work was impeded by the additional restrictions in her RFC. Id. To determine the extent to which these additional restrictions “eroded the unskilled light occupational base, ” the ALJ explained that he had asked the VE “whether jobs exist[ed] in the national economy for an individual with [Awad's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC].” Id. Because the VE testified that there were two such jobs, the ALJ deemed Awad “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, ” and not disabled. Id. at 23-24.

         The Appeals Council denied review in January 2017. Id. at 1.

         DISCUSSION

         Awad argues that the ALJ's conclusion that she could perform other jobs in the national economy was legally deficient because: (1) he never assessed whether she was disabled under the sedentary work Grid rule; (2) he did not decide whether she had transferable job skills, which was necessary for a disability determination under the sedentary work Grid rule; (3) he did not ask the VE whether the light work Grid rule or the sedentary work Grid rule most closely approximated her RFC and vocational factors of age, education, and past work experience, and explain the basis for any conclusions based on the VE's testimony; and (4) he did not determine whether her RFC slightly or significantly reduced her ability to perform light work, and apply the light work Grid rule if there was a slight reduction and the sedentary work Grid rule if there was a significant reduction.[8] See Pl.'s Br. at 5-8.

         I conduct a “plenary review” of the ALJ's legal conclusions. Payton v. Barnhart, 416 F.Supp.2d 385, 387 (E.D. Pa. 2006). At step five of the sequential evaluation process, the Commissioner must show there is other work in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(v); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 263 (3d Cir. 2000). To improve the uniformity and efficiency of this determination, the Secretary of Health and Human Services promulgated the Grids, and the Commissioner's reliance on those Grids has been upheld by the Supreme Court. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460, 467 (1983).[9] The Grids, however, direct a finding of disabled or nondisabled at step five only where the ALJ's findings concerning the claimant's vocational factors (age, education, and work experience) and physical exertional ability (i.e., a “maximum sustained work capability” of sedentary, light, or medium) correspond to the criteria in the Grids. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, supbt. P, app. 2, § 200.00(a); Sykes, 228 F.3d at 263; S.S.R. 83-11, 1983 WL 31252, at * (“The criteria of a rule are met only where they are exactly met.”).

         Where a claimant's physical ability “falls between the ranges of work indicated in the rules (e.g., the individual can perform more than light but less than medium), ” the Grids do not apply. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, supbt. P, app. 2, § 200.00(d). Instead, “full consideration must be given to all of the relevant factors of the case in accordance with the definitions and discussions of each factor in the appropriate sections of the regulations.” Id. The ALJ also may look to the Grids for “guidance.” Id. § 200.00(d); see also id. (ALJ must determine ...


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