United States District Court, D. Maryland
20, 2017, Plaintiff Sandra Benjamin petitioned this Court to
review the Social Security Administration's
[“SSA”] final decision to deny her claim for
benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 12, 13]. 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); see also Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that
standard, I will deny both motions, reverse the
Commissioner's decision, and remand the case to the
Commissioner for further consideration. This letter explains
Benjamin filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) on March 4, 2014, alleging a disability
onset date of January 6, 2014. (Tr. 220-21). Her claim was
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 101-13,
115-28). A hearing was held on May 24, 2016, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 55-94).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Benjamin
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 20-43). The Appeals
Council (“AC”) denied Ms. Benjamin's request
for review, (Tr. 1-3), so the ALJ's decision constitutes
the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Benjamin suffered from the severe impairments
of “Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, hypermobile joint syndrome,
degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine,
uterine prolapse, plantar fasciitis, and chronic fatigue
syndrome.” (Tr. 23). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Benjamin retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with the
following additional limitations: the claimant can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally climb
ladders, ropes and scaffolds; and occasionally balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.
(Tr. 28). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Benjamin could perform her past relevant work as a laboratory
technician. (Tr. 41-42). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that
Ms. Benjamin was not disabled. (Tr. 42).
Benjamin raises two primary arguments on appeal, namely: (1)
that the ALJ erroneously relied upon the VE's testimony;
and (2) that the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC. Each
argument is addressed below.
The ALJ's Reliance on the VE's Testimony
Ms. Benjamin argues that the ALJ erroneously relied upon the
VE's testimony to determine that she was capable of
performing her past relevant work. Past work is relevant when
“it was done within the last 15 years, lasted long
enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it, and was
substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1565. At the hearing, the VE considered and individually
classified Ms. Benjamin's prior jobs, specifically her
employment as a teacher's aide, administrative assistant,
art teacher, and laboratory technician. (Tr. 84-85). As Ms.
Benjamin notes, the ALJ incorrectly cited
“DOT#078.367-014” as the occupational code number
for “laboratory technician.” (Tr. 42). It is
quite apparent, however, that the ALJ intended to refer to
the job title of “MEDICAL-LABORATORY TECHNICIAN,
” which is listed in Section 078.381-014 of the DOT.
Importantly, Ms. Benjamin testified that, in 2006, she worked
as a “lab tech” for four months. (Tr. 85). The VE
mistakenly concluded that the Medical-Laboratory Technician
position (DOT #078.381-014) had a Specific Vocational
Preparation (“SVP”) of level four, and that, as
such, Ms. Benjamin's 2006 four-month stint was sufficient
“to learn the skills to perform at that level”
(SVP 4). (Tr. 84-86). The DOT provides, however, that the
Medical-Laboratory Technician (DOT #078.381) position is
classified as SVP “Level 5, ” thus requiring
“[o]ver 6 months up to and including 1 year” of
training.” DOT, Medical-Laboratory Technician,
job no. 078.381-014, available at 1991 WL 646827.
The VE's testimony thus conflicts with the DOT.
resolving an apparent conflict between the VE's testimony
and the DOT, the ALJ “must elicit a reasonable
explanation for the conflict before relying on the VE or VS
evidence to support a determination or decision about whether
the claimant is disabled.” SSR 00-4P, 2000 WL 1898704,
at *2 (S.S.A. Dec. 4, 2000); see also Henderson v.
Colvin, 643 Fed.Appx. 273, 277 (4th Cir. 2016);
(“[A] VE's testimony that apparently conflicts with
the DOT can only provide substantial evidence if the ALJ
received an explanation from the VE explaining the conflict
and determined both that the explanation was reasonable and
that it provided a basis for relying on the VE's
testimony rather than the DOT.”) (citation omitted);
Buckner-Larkin v. Astrue, 450 Fed.Appx. 626, 628-29
(9th Cir. 2011). Importantly, “[e]vidence from VEs . .
. can include information not listed in the DOT . . . [, ]
[but] available in other reliable publications, information
obtained directly from employers, or from a VE's . . .
experience in job placement or career counseling.” SSR
00-4P, 2000 WL 1898704, at *2. Here, the ALJ failed to make
any inquiry of the VE regarding her testimony's apparent
conflict with the DOT. See (Tr. 83-94). Instead, the
ALJ simply adopted the VE's mistaken conclusion that the
Medical-Laboratory Technician (DOT #078.381) position was
classified as SVP Level 4, and that, as such, Ms. Benjamin
could perform her past relevant work as a laboratory
technician. (Tr. 41-42) (“The [VE] further indicated
the claimant had enough time to learn the skills for this
argument that the ALJ's reliance on the VE's flawed
analysis constitutes harmless error is unavailing.
See Def.'s Mem. 6-7. Specifically, Defendant
contends that, because the VE also testified that Ms.
Benjamin: (1) could perform her past relevant work as a
general office clerk or an art teacher; and (2) could also
perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national
economy, including those of unskilled office helper,
non-postal mail clerk, and router clerk, that the ALJ's
reliance on her previous position as a laboratory technician
is harmless. While Defendant accurately recounts the VE's
testimony as to these alternative jobs, the ALJ, nonetheless,
failed to consider these positions, and based her findings
solely on Ms. Benjamin's past work as a laboratory
technician. See (Tr. 41-42). As such, remand is
required, because the ALJ's ultimate determination that
Ms. Benjamin was not disabled is based solely on the VE's
flawed Medical-Laboratory Technician analysis and the
ALJ's subsequent failure to probe its conflict with the
DOT. See Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th
Cir. 2012) (“In reviewing for substantial evidence, we
do not . . . substitute our judgment for that of the
[ALJ].”) (alteration in original) (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted). I cannot review a tentative
finding that the ALJ failed to make. In remanding, I express
no opinion regarding whether the ALJ's ultimate
conclusion that Ms. Benjamin is not entitled to benefits is
The ALJ's RFC Assessment
Ms. Benjamin argues that the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC
by failing to: (1) adequately provide a narrative discussion;
and (2) properly address her hand impairment. Ms.
Benjamin's argument is without merit. Social Security
regulations provide that 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).” Monroe v.
Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting SSR
96-8P, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (1996)). In doing so, an ALJ
must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the
evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000), as
amended (Dec. 13, 2000). With respect to physical RFC,
“[e]xertional capacity addresses an individual's
limitations and restrictions of physical strength and defines
the individual's remaining abilities to perform each of
seven strength demands: [s]itting, standing, walking,
lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling.” SSR 96-8p,
1996 WL 374184, at *5. Meanwhile, nonexertional capacity
considers limitations not dependent on an ...