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Stallings v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 16, 2015

ARLETHA STALLINGS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.

Arletha Stallings applied for Social Security disability benefits as well as supplemental social security income. She alleged that several health problems precluded from working, including asthma and problems with her shoulder, wrists, hands, and knees. An Administrative Law Judge, Dennis O'Leary, determined that Stallings did not meet the eligibility criteria for disability benefits. He found that her impairments were not severe enough to meet the statutory definition of disability. He also found that Stallings was capable of returning to her prior work, and that she was capable of performing a sufficient number of jobs in the national economy, either of which would disentitle her to benefits. Stallings has appealed that decision to this Court. I find that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. The decision will therefore be affirmed.

Background

Stallings alleges that she became disabled on November 15, 2003. (Disability Report, [1] 2) She was 40 years old at the time. (Decision, 10) Prior to that, she had worked as a hair stylist and a cashier. (Decision, 5) Stallings alleges that she has several physical impairments that make it very difficult for her to work.

First, Stallings alleges that she experiences pain and numbness in her wrists and hands, due partly to carpel tunnel syndrome. (Decision, 5) She also reports severe pain in her knees, requiring treatment with medication, icepacks, and heating pads. (Decision, 5) She also experiences severe shoulder pain, which she says makes it difficult or impossible to perform certain daily functions. (Decision, 5) Stallings also suffers from asthma attacks, which make it difficult for her to breathe. (Hearing, 51)

To decide whether Stallings met the requirements for disability, the ALJ followed the familiar five-step process prescribed in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). Briefly, that five step inquiry proceeds as follows. The claimant must first demonstrate that she is not currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., that she is not currently working. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At Step 2, the claimant must demonstrate that she has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the claimant must demonstrate that her impairment meets or is equal to the impairments listed in an Appendix to the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumed disabled, and the inquiry ends. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); Meyler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 238 F.App'x 884, 888-89 (3d Cir. 2007), as amended (Aug. 29, 2007). After step three, but before step four, the Commissioner determines the claimant's "residual functional capacity, " meaning "the most [the claimant] can still do despite [his] limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The Commissioner then uses this determination at step 4 to decide whether the claimant can return to his prior occupation. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot do so, at Step 5 the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform some other form of work available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 1520(a)(4)(v).

In this case, the ALJ began by noting that Stallings had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 15, 2003. Although she had worked to a limited degree, she had not earned enough income to "rise to the level of substantial gainful activity." (Decision, 3) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Stallings had three severe impairments: asthma, a shoulder impingement, and a "mild median nerve entrapment of the wrists." At Step 3, however, the ALJ found that those impairments did not meet the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 303, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ then considered Stallings's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). He determined that Stallings had the capacity to perform light work. (Decision, 4) Given this capacity, the ALJ found at Step 4 that Stallings could return to her former work as a cashier or hair stylist. (Decision, 5) In addition, at Step 5, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Stallings could perform. (Decision, 11)

Stallings has appealed the ALJ's decision to this Court. She challenges the ALJ's determinations at Steps 2 and 3, then challenges the ALJ's determination of Stallings's residual functional capacity. Because Stallings questions the ALJ's RFC determination, she also challenges his conclusion that she is capable of performing gainful work at Steps 4 and 5.

Discussion

For each category of impairments, the ALJ's determinations are supported by substantial evidence.

Wrist impairment

The ALJ found that Stallings did have a legitimate impairment in her wrists (Step 2), but found that this impairment was not severe enough to qualify as one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Step 3). Further, the ALJ found that Stallings's wrist problems did not prevent her from performing light work (RFC Assessment), nor did it prevent her from returning to her prior work, or to other gainful employment (Steps 4 and 5). Those conclusions are supported by substantial evidence.

The relevant regulations specifically address wrist injuries. To rise to the requisite level of severity, the claimant must be unable to "perform fine and gross movements effectively." 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 1.00(B)(2)(c). That means that the claimant must have experienced an "extreme loss of function of both upper extremities; i.e., an impairment(s) that interferes very seriously with the individual's ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities." 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 1.00(B)(2)(c). Examples of an inability to effectively perform fine and gross movements include "the inability to prepare a simple meal and feed oneself, the inability to take care of personal hygiene, the inability to sort and handle papers or files, and the inability to place files in a file cabinet or at or above waist level." 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 1.00(B)(2)(c). Conversely, an individual can effectively perform gross movements if she is "capable of sustaining such functions as reaching, pushing, pulling, grasping, and fingering to be able to carry out activities of daily living." 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 1.00(B)(2)(c).

The medical evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that Stallings's wrist injuries do not rise to the level of severity that Appendix 1 requires. Stallings is able to complete actions that indicate competence to perform fine and gross movements effectively. She reported difficulty in preparing meals, but she was able to pick up and write with a pencil, button a button, comb her hair, hold up a cup, and tie a shoe. (Hospital Records II, 16) Treatment records indicate that Stallings enjoys reasonable strength and dexterity in her wrists and hands. For example, in March 2009, an examining physician noted that Stallings had "excellent finger range of motion and strength." (Tan Report, 1) By April of 2009, Stallings reported that she was experiencing no pain in her wrists at all. (Tan Report, 3) In February of 2011, an evaluating physician explained that Stallings's "[h]and and finger dexterity are intact bilaterally, but the grip strength in the right hand is down to about 4/5 compared to the left." He noted that although her "pinch strength" was down slightly, she could "fully extend the fingers of the right hand. She could make a fist and oppose the fingers against the thumb." (Essex Report, 2) He explained that Stallings could "separate papers and button and unbutton buttons." (Essex Report, 2) Similarly, an X-Ray of Stallings's right hand revealed no fracture or dislocation, no abnormal soft tissue calcification, and revealed the hand to be intact. (Essex Report, 4) In March of 2011, the state agency physician found that Stallings had no manipulative limitations. (Briski Report, 4)

All of this substantial evidence provided sufficient support for the ALJ's determination that Stallings's wrist injuries were real, but not severe enough to meet the standards set by Appendix 1. Likewise, the evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Stallings could perform light work, could return to her jobs as a cashier or hair stylist, and could perform other jobs ...


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