United States District Court, D. Maryland
December 14, 2015, Plaintiff Karen Lee Schaefer petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits ("DIB"). (ECF No. 1). I have considered
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Ms.
Schaefer's reply. (ECF Nos. 17, 18, 19). I find that no
hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md.
2016). This Court must uphold the decision of the Agency if
it is supported by substantial evidence and if the Agency
employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76
F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will
deny both motions, reverse the judgment of the Commissioner,
and remand the case to the Commissioner for further analysis
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This
letter explains my rationale.
Schaefer filed her claim on May 28, 2010, alleging a
disability onset date of January 14, 2010. (Tr. 210-16). Her
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
115-17, 123-24). A hearing was held on November 13, 2012,
before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr.
32-65). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Schaefer was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 93-110).
However, the Appeals Council ("AC") remanded Ms.
Schaefer's case for further consideration. (Tr. 111-14).
A second hearing was held on May 12, 2014. (Tr. 66-90).
Following that hearing, the ALJ again determined that Ms.
Schaefer was not disabled during the relevant time frame.
(Tr. 9-31). This time, the AC denied Ms. Schaefer's
request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's 2014 decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Schaefer suffered from the severe impairments
of "multilevel degenerative disc disease, facet joint
osteoarthritis, SI (sacroiliac joint) radiculopathy and
bilateral epicondylitis in both arms." (Tr. 15). Despite
these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Schaefer
retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) that
does not require more than occasional kneeling, crawling,
climbing and pushing/pulling with the hands; nor more than
frequent balancing, crouching, kneeling and stooping; nor
more than frequent handling of objects with the right hand -
that is, gross manipulation.
(Tr. 16). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined alternatively
that Ms. Schaefer could perform her past relevant work as a
clinical research coordinator, and that, therefore, she was
not disabled. (Tr. 24).
Schaefer raises two primary arguments on appeal. First, she
argues that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to the
opinions of her treating physicians that she would be unable
to sustain work using her upper extremities for an eight-hour
workday. Second, she contends that the ALJ failed to rely on
substantial evidence establishing her ability to perform her
past relevant work. Additionally, Ms. Schaefer requests that
the Commissioner be ordered to provide her with information
regarding the basis of a new award of disability, which was
awarded as of the date following the ALJ's 2014 opinion.
I concur that the ALJ failed to provide substantial evidence
to support a conclusion that Ms. Schaefer could perform her
past relevant work. In remanding for further explanation, I
express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate
conclusion that Ms. Schaefer is not entitled to benefits is
correct or incorrect. Further, I decline to order the
Commissioner to provide information to Ms. Schaefer regarding
the basis for the subsequent award of benefits. However, Ms.
Schaefer should undertake to procure that information so
that, on remand, she can effectively explore with the
Commissioner whether an earlier onset date is appropriate.
the issue presented in this case is whether Ms. Schaefer is
capable of performing her past relevant work as a clinical
research coordinator, which involves significant typing, for
an eight-hour workday five days per week. As of the time this
case was adjudicated, Ms. Schaefer was working in a part-time
capacity in a different position, which also involved typing
and office tasks. (Tr. 78). Ms. Schaefer testified that her
pain "increases over the course of the day from my work,
" that she has to take breaks for stretching, and that
she is unable to work more hours due to pain. (Tr. 73, 78).
Her pain decreases with rest. (Tr. 74). After leaving work,
she has to rest her arms for a couple of hours before doing
any household chores. (Tr. 79). That testimony is consistent
with the medical opinion evidence suggesting that Ms.
Schaefer's workplace tolerance is limited to four hours
per day. (Tr. 738, 751). However, the ALJ rejected the
"workplace tolerance" portion of Dr. Marion's
opinion, suggesting that it was "contravened by the
claimant's extensive daily activities including her
ability to work part-time, drive, shop and perform household
chores." (Tr. 23). The ALJ did not address, however, the
uncontroverted testimony that, while Ms. Schaefer was capable
of doing all of the things on that list of daily activities,
she needed significant amounts of rest and was incapable of
sustaining activities such as typing or cleaning for an
entire eight-hour workday. See, e.g., (Tr. 80)
("I do clean, and that does cause pain in my arms when I
clean. I take, you know, I do that gingerly . . . [for about]
an hour to two."). Essentially, the ALJ cited to no
evidence supporting the proposition that Ms. Schaefer could
perform her past relevant work, involving frequent typing,
for the entirety of an eight-hour workday, given her upper
extremity impairments and resulting pain. Remand is
therefore appropriate so that the ALJ can fulfill his duty of
the ALJ unsuccessfully attempted to distinguish the result of
Ms. Schaefer's worker's compensation case by
asserting, "Workers' compensation cases look only at
the claimant's ability to return to the job being
performed at the time of a purported injury." (Tr. 23).
Typically, in a Social Security disability case, the issue is
whether a claimant can perform any work, not just a
particular position, so the situation is easily
distinguishable from workers' compensation. In the unique
circumstance presented here, however, Ms. Schaefer would be
deemed disabled, pursuant to the Medical-Vocational
Guidelines, unless she were able to return to her past
relevant work, which is also the job she was performing at
the time of her purported injury. See 20 C.F.R. pt.
404, Subpt. P, App. 2, §§ 201.14 and 201.06. Thus,
the inquiry here is the same inquiry performed by
workers' compensation, and the findings made by
workers' compensation cannot be distinguished on those
reasons set forth herein, Ms. Schaefer's Motion for
Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) is DENIED and Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is DENIED. The
Commissioner's judgment is REVERSED IN PART and REMANDED
for further explanation pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as
an opinion and docketed as an order.
Stephanie A. Gallagher United ...