United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
CARMEN M. AWAD, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
TIMOTHY R. RICE, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. Id. at 67. The VE identified two
available jobs: (1) usher; and (2) bakery worker/conveyor
line. Id. at 67-68.
September 2, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion denying
Awad's DIB application. Id. at 10-24. Applying
the five-step sequential analysis,  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.” 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. Id. at 13-14.
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.
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.” 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. Id.
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.
Appeals Council denied review in January 2017. Id.
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. See Pl.'s Br.
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). 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.”).
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 ...