Monday, February 16, 2015

social security disability - a) lay testimony; b) hypothetical questions; c) conflict between VE testimony and DOTecurity disability

Zirnsak v. Colvin – 3d Cir. – December 9, 2014



The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of benefits.  The opinion was published on motion of the defendant.


Lay testimony properly discounted

An ALJ can consider evidence from non-medical sources to determine the severity of a claimant’s impairments and how those impairments impact the claimant’s ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d) (2014). Non-medical sources include “spouses, parents and other caregivers, siblings, other relatives, friends, neighbors, and clergy.” Id. § 404.1513(d)(4). The Commissioner has issued a policy interpretation ruling “to clarify how [to] consider opinions from sources who are not ‘acceptable medical sources.’” SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *1 (Aug. 9, 2006).


The ALJ’s reasons for rejecting the evidence are supported by substantial evidence, as the evidence did not relate to the narrow question presented to the ALJ: whether Zirnsak was disabled at any point between May 11, 2006 and December 31, 2007. We therefore defer to the ALJ’s credibility assessments. Diaz, 577 F.3d at 506.


The two Social Security Rulings relied on by Zirnsak are not designed to provide guidance for how to evaluate lay opinion testimony. The purpose of the first ruling cited, SSR 83-20, is to “describe the relevant evidence to be considered when establishing the onset date of disability,” not whether disability exists. SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *1 (1983)


The second ruling cited by Zirnsak, SSR 96-7p, lists its purpose as “to clarify when the evaluation of symptoms, including pain, . . . requires a finding about the credibility of an individual [claimant’s] statements.” SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 (July 2, 1996). Therefore, SSR 96-7p does not address lay witnesses’ accounts of the claimant’s symptoms, but rather the claimant’s description of her own pain. Id. Accordingly, the claimant’s arguments based upon these rulings and certain cases interpreting those rulings are inapposite.


Hypothetical question to VE not deficient

“Testimony of vocational experts in disability determination proceedings typically includes, and often centers upon, one or more hypothetical questions posed by the ALJ to the vocational expert.” Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 1984). Usually, the ALJ will ask whether a hypothetical claimant with the same physical and mental impairments as the claimant can perform certain jobs that exist in the national economy. Id. The hypothetical must “accurately portray” any impairments of the claimant. Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 554. This Court has held that to accurately portray a claimant’s impairments, the ALJ must include all “credibly established limitations” in the hypothetical. Id. (citing Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 431 (3d Cir. 1999)).


This Circuit does “not require an ALJ to submit to the [VE] every impairment alleged by a claimant.” Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 554. Rather, the ALJ is only required to submit credibly established limitations. Id. Where, as here, a limitation is supported by some medical evidence but controverted by other evidence in the record, it is within the ALJ’s discretion whether to submit the limitation to the VE. Id. While the record in this case is not conclusive as to whether Zirnsak had short-term memory or task problem limitations, there is substantial evidence to support a finding that she did not—namely, her lack of demonstrated problems with activities of daily living and her ability to drive. The ALJ therefore appropriately exercised his discretion when determining which limitations to submit to the VE. In making credibility determinations like this one, this Court will “not substitute our own judgment for that of the fact finder.” Id. at 552. Accordingly, we find that the hypothetical question posed to the VE was not deficient for failure to fully reflect Zirnsak’s limitations.


Conflict between VE testimony and DOT

As a general rule, occupational evidence provided by a VE should be consistent with the occupational evidence presented in the DOT. Id. at *2. To ensure consistency, courts have imposed an obligation on ALJs to “[i]dentify and obtain a reasonable explanation for any conflicts between occupational evidence provided by VEs . . . and information in the [DOT].” Id. at *1; Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 556. Specifically, an ALJ is required to (1) ask, on the record, whether the VE’s testimony is consistent with the DOT, (2) “elicit a reasonable explanation” where an inconsistency does appear, and (3) explain in its decision “how the conflict was resolved.” Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 127 (3d Cir. 2002). An ALJ’s failure to comply with these requirements may warrant remand in a particular case. Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 557. However, this Circuit has emphasized that the presence of inconsistencies does not mandate remand, so long as “substantial evidence exists in other portions of the record that can form an appropriate basis to support the result.” Id. (citing Boone v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 203, 209 (3d Cir. 2004)).


There is a split of authority as to whether an inherent conflict exists between a job requiring level 3 reasoning and a finding that a claimant should be limited to simple, routine tasks and unskilled work.   E.g., Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 478 (7th Cir. 2009).  See,  Renfrow v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 918, 921 (8th Cir. 2007); Clawson v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 11–294, 2013 WL 154206, at *6 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2013); Simpson v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 10–2874, 2011 WL 1883124, at *7 (E.D. Pa. May 17, 2011) VERSUS  Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 478 (7th Cir. 2009); Renfrow v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 918, 921 (8th Cir. 2007); Clawson v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 11–294, 2013 WL 154206, at *6 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2013); Simpson v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 10–2874, 2011 WL 1883124, at *7 (E.D. Pa. May 17, 2011).


The review of the aforementioned cases demonstrates that there is no bright-line rule stating whether there is a per se conflict between a job that requires level 3 reasoning and a finding that a claimant should be limited to simple and routine work. Without controlling precedent on this issue, this Court finds that the decisions in the Terry and Simpson cases are most applicable to the facts of Zirnsak’s case - any error stemming from an ALJ’s failure to ask about a conflict was harmless where the record established that the claimant in question could perform a level 3 reasoning job, despite a limitation to simple work.


Second, as in Terry and Simpson, Zirnsak’s counsel did not identify any inconsistencies between the VE’s testimony and the DOT at her hearing. (Tr. at 59). In fact, Zirnsak’s counsel did not question the VE regarding inconsistencies at all.  Finally, as in Simpson, the occupations listed by the VE were only “a couple examples” of jobs available to Zirnsak. ....Accordingly, the combination of these factors compels our finding that “any conflict [was] not so obvious that the ALJ should have pursued the question.”




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