United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER
Gwendolyn Adams commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the
Social Security Act. Adams contends that the decision of the
administrative law judge (ALJ) was erroneous in several
respects, including: (1) failing to adequately explain the
handling limitation in the residual functional capacity (RFC)
determination; (2) noncompliance with Social Security Ruling
(SSR) 16-3p when assessing Adams' reported pain and
symptoms; (3) assigning great weight to irreconcilable
opinions; and (4) noncompliance with SSR 83-12 for failing
for determine whether the RFC reduces Adams' light
exertional capacity. For the reasons provided below, the
Commissioner's decision will be reversed and remanded.
November 14, 2012, Adams, then 49 years old, tripped over a
piece of concrete while at a mall, leading to a displaced
fracture of her left wrist and pain in her right knee. R. 18,
274, 537, 563. Adams filed an application for SSI on May 29,
2014, alleging disability beginning in November 2012 due to
left wrist and arm pain and right knee pain. R. 159, 199.
After Adams' claim was denied initially on September 25,
2014 and upon reconsideration on March 26, 2015, she
requested a hearing before an ALJ. R. 79, 88. ALJ Ramona L.
Fernandez conducted a video hearing on May 8, 2017, during
which Adams, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational
expert (VE) testified.
time of the hearing, Adams was 54 years old and lived in an
upper duplex with her fiancé. Adams testified that her
last full-time work was in 2002 doing customer service,
stocking, and ringing up customers, which required her to be
on her feet all day and lift up to 40 pounds. R. 41-42. She
left that job after about one and a half years because her
supervisor refused to train her. R. 41, 43. Adams testified
that she worked part-time for one and one half months in
retail customer service in 2014 but left because her pain was
overbearing. R. 40. When asked what limits her from working,
Adams testified that she experiences tenderness, weakness,
and pain, primarily in her left arm from her fingers to her
shoulder and in right knee through her thigh. R. 43-44.
Although Adams takes medication for her pain, she reduces the
prescribed amount to avoid side effects. R. 45-46.
daily activities, Adams testified that her typical day is to
rise in the morning and then go to a Lazy-Boy recliner,
although she goes grocery shopping once or twice each month.
R. 51. Adams' fiancé assists her with cleaning,
cooking, and laundry, although Adams occasionally prepares
her own meals. R. 45, 48-49. Adams testified that she usually
showers each day but relies almost entirely on her dominant
right hand to do so. R. 48. Adams wears splints for her knee
and arm, but only when at home. R. 50. She has difficulty
standing and walking around because she begins to experience
pain and looks for a place to sit. R. 50-52. Adams is able to
drive and she drove about thirty minutes to the hearing. R.
39. Although Adams tries to keep both hands on the steering
wheel while driving, she has trouble using her left hand to
turn. R. 50.
written decision dated June 2, 2017, the ALJ concluded that
Adams was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act since May 29, 2014, the date of her application.
R. 24. To arrive at this conclusion, the ALJ followed the
Social Security Administration's (SSA's) five-step
sequential evaluation process. R. 14-15. At step one, the ALJ
determined that Adams had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since May 29, 2014. R. 15. At step two, the ALJ
found that Adams has the following severe impairments: status
post open reduction and internal fixation of the left wrist;
degenerative joint disease of the right knee; and complex
regional pain syndrome of the left upper extremity.
Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Adams did
not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R.
considering the whole record, the ALJ found that Adams had
the RFC to “perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
416.967(b) except lifting a maximum of fifteen pounds; only
occasionally climbing; no kneeling, crawling, use of ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; and only frequent handling and
occasional fingering with the left (non-dominant)
hand.” Id. At step four, the ALJ determined
that Adams is capable of performing past relevant work as a
retail clerk. R. 22. Despite this step four determination,
the ALJ made alternative findings at step five that there
exist jobs in the national economy in significant numbers
that Adams could perform, such as information clerk, order
caller, and garment sorter. R. 23-24. Even were the RFC
limited to a sedentary exertional level, the ALJ concluded
that an individual with that RFC could perform work as a
telephone solicitor, a position with significant numbers in
the national economy. R. 24, 56. Based on these findings, the
ALJ concluded that Adams was not disabled. R. 24. After the
Appeals Council denied review and the ALJ's decision
became final, Adams filed this action for judicial review.
Commissioner's decision will be upheld if the ALJ applied
the correct legal standards and supported the decision with
substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. 405(g); Jelinek v.
Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). Substantial
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010).
Although a decision denying benefits need not discuss every
piece of evidence, remand is appropriate when an ALJ fails to
provide adequate support for the conclusions drawn.
Jelinek, 662 F.3d at 811. The ALJ must provide a
“logical bridge” between the evidence and
conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872
(7th Cir. 2000).
the ALJ is expected to follow the SSA's rulings and
regulations in making a determination. Failure to do so,
unless the error is harmless, requires reversal.
Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 736-37 (7th
Cir. 2006). In reviewing the entire record, the court does
not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by
reconsidering facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts
in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Estok
v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Finally,
judicial review is limited to the rationales offered by the
ALJ. Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir.
2012) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80,
93-95 (1943); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 307
(7th Cir. 2010)).
first contends that the ALJ erred in failing to adequately
explain the handling limitation in the RFC determination. The
RFC is the maximum that a claimant can do despite her
physical and mental limitations. See Craft v.
Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p). “The RFC
assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how
the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific
medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical
evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations).” SSR
96-8p. The assessment must also address “both the
remaining exertional and nonexertional capacities of the
[claimant].” Id. Nonexertional capacity
considers a claimant's manipulative (e.g. handling)
abilities. Id. The SSA has explained that
“handling (seizing, holding, grasping, turning or
otherwise working primarily with the whole hand or hands)
[is] required in almost all jobs” and
“[s]ignificant limitations of . . . handling,
therefore, may eliminate a large number of occupations a
person could otherwise do.” SSR 85-15; see also
Herrmann v. Colvin, 772 F.3d 1110, 1112 (7th Cir. 2014).
to step four, the ALJ determined that Adams had the RFC to
perform light work with “only frequent handling and
occasional fingering with the left (non-dominant) hand,
” among other limitations. R. 16. Adams contends that
the ALJ offered no explanation for the disparate treatment of
these two manipulative functions-handling and fingering-and
failed to address relevant opinion evidence regarding
handling limitations. Adams finds this failure especially
significant because a limitation to occasional handling
rather than “frequent handling, ” as the ALJ
found, would preclude performance of the jobs cited by the VE
on which the ALJ relies, including Adams' past work as a
retail clerk. Adams notes that, under the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles (DOT), the jobs of retail clerk (cited as
DOT 279.357-054), information clerk, order caller, and
garment sorter each require frequent handling, and the
telephone solicitor job cited in the alternative requires
frequent fingering, not occasional fingering, as the VE
testified. See Dkt. Nos. 16-2, 26-1; DOT
279.357-054, 1991 WL 672548.
not wholly absent as Adams contends, the ALJ's
explanation of the frequent handling RFC limitation is
deficient. The ALJ noted that: Adams self-reports that
“she has problems with grasping and holding items or
trying to pick up heavier items”; an occupational
therapist's (OT's) March 2014 evaluation, to which
the ALJ assigned great weight, reported that Adams'
“grip strength was similarly quite lower in her left
hand than her right, although her overall upper extremity
strength was five out of five”; at the OT's
evaluation, Adams reported having difficulty “gripping[
] and handling small items”; and Adams' clinical
examinations showed that “[h]er range of motion and
muscle and grip strength were reduced in her wrist, but she
generally did not show dystrophic skin changes.” R. 17,
19-21. Aside from the RFC finding itself, the ALJ ...