Bowman v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER : 1) Pla's 15 Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED; 2) Commissioner's 17 Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; 3) the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED; 4) A Judgment will be entered contemporaneously with this Order. Signed by Judge Claria Horn Boom on 10/8/21.(JLS)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
DOROTHY A. BOWMAN,
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 0:20-CV-00142-CHB
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND
This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for Summary Judgment. [R. 15, R. 17].
The Plaintiff, Dorothy A. Bowman, exhausted her administrative remedies and brought this
action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision denying
her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The
Court, having reviewed the record and the parties’ motions, affirms the Commissioner’s
Procedural and Factual Background
On June 7, 2018, Bowman filed an application for DIB benefits, alleging she became
disabled in May 2018. [R. 12-1, pp. 22]. Her application was initially denied and again on
reconsideration, after which she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
Id. at 22, 100–03, 110–16, 119–24. The ALJ held a telephonic hearing on April 16, 2020, and
subsequently issued an unfavorable decision on May 7, 2020, finding Bowman was not disabled
since May 29, 2018. Id. at 22–34, 136. The Appeals Council denied her request for review, and
the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 6–8. Bowman then
filed her Complaint against the Commissioner in this Court. [R.1].
Standard of Review
This Court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to determining whether it
is supported by “substantial evidence” and made in accordance with proper legal standards.
Rabbers v. Comm’r Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance.” Cutlip
v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). “The substantial
evidence standard is met if a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Longworth v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005)
(internal quotations omitted). “Substantiality must also be based on the record ‘as a whole.’”
Houston v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 736 F.2d 365, 366 (6th Cir. 1984) (citing Allen v.
Califano, 613 F.2d 139 (6th Cir. 1980)). However, “even if there is substantial evidence in the
record that would have supported an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial evidence
supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ,” the Court must uphold the Commissioner’s
decision. Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Key v.
Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). This Court cannot review the case de novo,
resolve conflicts of evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286; Garner v.
Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).
To determine disability under the Social Security Act, the ALJ must conduct a five-step
analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
1. First, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is not currently engaged in “substantial
gainful activity” at the time she seeks disability benefits.
2. Second, plaintiff must show that she suffers from a “severe impairment” to warrant a
finding of disability.
3. Third, if plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe
impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the impairment
meets a listed impairment, plaintiff is presumed to be disabled regardless of age,
education or work experience.
4. Fourth, if the plaintiff's impairment does not prevent her from doing her past relevant
work, plaintiff is not disabled.
5. For the fifth and final step, even if the plaintiff's impairment does prevent her from
doing her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that
plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is not disabled.
Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Heston v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001)). If the ALJ makes a dispositive finding at any point in the
five-step analysis, the review terminates. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the
burden of proof during the first four steps; this burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to
prove the availability of other work in the national economy that the claimant is capable of
performing. Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997). The claimant
always retains the burden of proving lack of residual functional capacity (RFC). 1 Jordan v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 423 (6th Cir. 2008).
The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process as required by SSA regulations. [R.
12-1, pp. 22–34]. At step one, the ALJ found Bowman had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since May 29, 2018, the alleged onset date. Id. at 25. At step two, the ALJ found
Bowman had the following severe impairments: right shoulder degenerative joint disease (DJD);
lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease (DDD); obesity; left hand/wrist osteoarthritis and
carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS); and osteoarthritis and status-post left thumb arthroplasty. Id. At
step three, the ALJ determined Bowman did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled in severity one of the listed impairments. Id. at 28. At
An individual’s residual functional capacity is the most an individual can still do despite his or her impairmentrelated limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945 (a)(1).
step four, the ALJ determined Bowman’s RFC assessment, finding that she could perform “light
work” 2 with the following limitations:
She can no greater than frequently push or pull with the left hand. She can operate
hand controls with the left hand frequently. She can frequently reach overhead
bilaterally. She can finger and feel items frequently with the left hand. The claimant
can climb ramps and stairs occasionally, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds,
balance frequently, stoop frequently, kneel frequently, crouch occasionally, and
crawl occasionally. The claimant can work at unprotected heights frequently, can
work around moving mechanical parts frequently, and can operate a motor vehicle
frequently. She can work in wetness frequently, in extreme cold frequently, in
extreme heat frequently, and in vibration frequently.
Id. at 28–29.
Based on this RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined
that Bowman is capable of performing past work as a quality control technician, laboratory
technician, auto assembly supervisor, and sewing machine operator. Id. at 33. Thus, the ALJ
found Bowman was “not disabled.” Id. at 34.
On appeal, Bowman makes one argument, asserting that: the ALJ failed to include the
limitations of the state agency physicians in her RFC, and therefore, the RFC presented to the VE
failed to accurately describe Bowman, resulting in the VE’s testimony being unsupported by
substantial evidence. [R. 15-1, p. 1].
Residual Functional Capacity
RFC is an indication of an individual’s work-related abilities despite their limitations. See
20 C.F.R. § 416. 945(a). A claimant’s RFC is not a medical opinion, but an administrative
determination reserved to the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416. 945(e). It is the ALJ’s
“Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing
up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good
deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg
controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, [one] must have the ability to do
substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary
work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of
time.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).
responsibility to assess a claimant’s RFC based on all the relevant evidence. See 20 C.F. R. §
416. 945(a). When determining a claimant’s RFC, the ALJ is “required to consider the combined
effect of all the claimant’s impairments.” Thompson v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84542, at
*33 (N.D. Ohio Aug. 2, 2011) (citing Scott v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17023, at *17
(N.D. Ohio Feb. 22, 2011)); see also 20 C.F. R. § 416. 945(a)(2). However, when posing
hypothetical questions to a VE, the ALJ is only required to incorporate those limitations accepted
as credible. Casey v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1235 (6th Cir. 1993)
(citing Hardaway v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 823 F.2d 922, 928 (6th Cir. 1987)).
First, Bowman argues that the RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence
because the ALJ failed to include in her RFC the limitations Drs. Saranga, Reed, and Beard 3
found regarding Bowman’s use of her hands. [R. 15-1, p. 3]. The Court disagrees. Specifically,
Drs. Saranga and Reed 4 concluded that Bowman had limitation in her upper left extremity
regarding pushing/pulling, handling (gross manipulation), and fingering (fine manipulation). [R.
12-1, pp. 75–80, 91–98]. However, with the latter two abilities, both doctors found that Bowman
could perform those functions frequently. 5 Id. Dr. Beard’s 6 medical statement claimed, “the
findings appear supportive of limitations in terms of prolonged or repetitious use of the hands as
well as repetitive gripping and grasping and handling of objects.” Id. at 403–04. Dr. Beard’s
opinion, however, failed to define “limitations” or provide any degree of restriction. Id. at 33,
398–404. Nonetheless, the ALJ found Dr. Beard’s opinion to be “broadly supported by the
objective imagining and the examination findings, and … the evidence as a whole.” Id. at 33.
The ALJ found all three opinions “persuasive.” [R. 12-1, pp. 32–33].
State agency non-examiners
“‘Frequent’ means occurring from one-third to two-thirds of the time … [Many unskilled jobs] require use of arms
and hands to grasp and to hold and turn objects, and they generally do not require use of the fingers for fine
activities to the extent required in much sedentary work.” SSR 83-10, 1983 SSR LEXIS 30.
State agency examiner
Thus, as evidenced by the statement above and his extensive opinion, the ALJ formulated
Bowman’s RFC based on all the evidence in the record, including the opinions of Drs. Saranga,
Reed, and Beard. Id. at 30, 32–33. Hence, the determined RFC does, in fact, include limitations
as to Bowman’s use of her left hand. Specifically, she can only “frequently push or pull,”
“operate hand controls…frequently,” and “finger and feel items frequently.” Id. at 28. These
limitations align with Drs. Saranga and Reed’s opinion, and it can be safely assumed it satisfies
the “vague” opinion of Dr. Beard. Id. at 33. While the assigned limitation may not be as
restrictive as Bowman desires, the ALJ’s conclusion that additional limitations are not required 7
is supported by substantial evidence:
Despite his more restrictive conclusion, Dr. Beard’s report found that Bowman’s “left
grip strength and left wrist was graded 4/5.” [R. 12-1, p. 403].
Bowman was found to have normal range of motion of the left hand and wrist–even with
tenderness and decreased grip strength–throughout her medical examinations. Id. at 31–
32, 71, 344–45, 348–49, 351, 496–97, 577–78.
In May 2018, Bowman underwent a successful surgery (i.e., left carpal tunnel release and
left CMC arthroplasty) that improved Bowman’s hand until she reinjured it almost five
months post-operation when she fell against a sink. Id. at 414, 511. However, the new
injury did not change any “hardware” installed during the surgery. Id. at 424.
Bowman’s pain has, on average, been a 2 or 3 out of 10. Id. at 491, 576.
Imaging showed only mild findings without evidence of neuropathy or radiculopathy. Id.
at 32, 348, 351, 403, 478, 480–81, 484, 505, 584.
Bowman was deemed “fit for work–with restrictions” in both May 2019 and August
2019. Id. at 493, 497.
This evidence is more than sufficient to support the ALJ’s limitations as described to the VE. See
generally Hardaway, 823 F.2d at 927–28 (where the court concluded that the ALJ’s hypothetical
[R. 12-1, p. 32]
questions regarding sedentary work were supported by the record since “one doctor did state that
[claimant] could perform sedentary work.”).
Second, Bowman argues the RFC should have included limitations for her right/dominant
hand since Dr. Beard’s restriction mentioned “hands.” Id. at 403–04; [R. 15-1, p. 5]. In support
of her position, Bowman cites to Ealy v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504 (6th Cir. 2010). In
Ealy, the ALJ concluded that the claimant had moderate difficulties with regard to concentration,
persistence, and pace. 594 F.3d at 516. However, these limitations were found not to have been
fully conveyed to the VE. Id. Consequently, the court found the VE’s testimony, which
concluded that Ealy could work as an assembler, inspector, packer, or production worker, was
not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 517.
Ealy, however, is distinguishable from the present case. The ALJ found Bowman’s righthand impairment to be “non-severe” because no evidence in the record suggested that the
impairment imposed “more than minimal work-related restrictions.” [R. 12-1, p. 25]. Having
reviewed the record, the Court finds that the ALJ’s conclusion to be supported by substantial
evidence. As noted by the ALJ, there is no documentation that supports a limitation associated
with Bowman’s right hand since the alleged onset date. Id. Dr. Beard’s evaluation stated
Bowman’s right hand has 5/5 strength and normal range of motion. Id. at 401, 403. In addition,
there is no evidence in the record to support a claim that Bowman has received treatment for her
right hand, or even reported pain despite a history of right CTS status-post carpal tunnel release.
Id. at 25. The full focus of the medical record is on Bowman’s left hand, not her right. Id. at 25,
344–53, 414–37, 468–88, 491–515, 576–82. Thus, it was reasonable for the ALJ to not
incorporate limitations for Bowman’s right hand, as such limitations cannot be deemed credible
by the record. See Casey, 987 F.2d at 1235.
Because the Court has determined the ALJ’s RFC properly included the limitations of the
state agency physicians and was supported by substantial evidence, the VE’s conclusion that
Bowman can perform past jobs is appropriate–particularly since the relevant past work aligns
with the RFC’s assigned limitations. See 806.137-022 Quality Assurance Supervisor, DICOT
806.137-022; 019.261-030 Laboratory Technician, DICOT 019.261-030; 806.134-010
Supervisor, Motor Vehicle Assembly, DICOT 806.134-010; 787.682-046 Sewing-machine
Operator, DICOT 787.682-046.
Accordingly, for the reasons stated above,
IT IS ORDERED as follows:
1. The Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 15] is DENIED.
2. The Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 17] is GRANTED.
3. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
4. A judgment will be entered contemporaneously with this Order.
This the 8th day of October, 2021.
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