Fairley v. Commissioner of Social Security
Memorandum Opinion and Order: The Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion. Magistrate Judge Kathleen B. Burke on 4/3/2017. (D,I)
kIN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
LLOYD FAIRLEY, JR.,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
CASE NO. 1:16CV1008
KATHLEEN B. BURKE
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
Plaintiff Lloyd Fairley, Jr. (“Fairley”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of
Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Doc. 1. This
Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This case is before the undersigned
Magistrate Judge pursuant to the consent of the parties. Doc. 15.
As set forth more fully below, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to explain
what he meant when he included a limitation in his residual functional capacity assessment that
Fairley “must be able to change position in his seat as needed for comfort” and testimony from
the Vocational Expert does not shed light on this limitation. Thus, the Court cannot ascertain
whether this limitation is in conflict with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and would
warrant further investigation by the ALJ. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is
REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
I. Procedural History
Fairley filed applications for DIB and SSI on February 6, 2013, alleging a disability onset
date of March 5, 2012. Tr. 12, 182, 212. He alleged disability based on the following: post1
traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, diabetes, disc herniation
L3-L5, high blood pressure, supraventricular tachycardia, complex medial meniscus tear in left
knee, and left hip contusion and sprain. Tr. 228. After denials by the state agency initially (Tr.
101-102) and on reconsideration (Tr. 129-130), Fairley requested an administrative hearing. Tr.
156. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Frederick Andreas on
January 29, 2015. Tr. 40-76. In his April 17, 2015, decision (Tr. 12-35), the ALJ determined
that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Fairley can
perform, i.e., he is not disabled. Tr. 34. Fairley requested review of the ALJ’s decision by the
Appeals Council (Tr. 7) and, on March 9, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, making the
ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-3.
A. Personal and Vocational Evidence
Fairley was born in 1966 and was 46 years old on the date his applications were filed. Tr.
34, 212. He graduated from high school. Tr. 229. He previously worked in a steel mill as a
vacuum operator and at a paper factory as a wrapper. Tr. 69-72. He last worked in 2012. Tr.
B. Relevant Medical Evidence1
In April 2010, Fairley saw chiropractor Brian C. Studer, D.C., after a car accident. Tr.
297-304. Fairley complained of headaches, neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, and left wrist
pain. Tr. 298. He improved with treatment but continued to have intermittent muscle
spasms/guarding within his bilateral lumbar region. Tr. 303.
Fairley only challenges the ALJ’s medical findings regarding his carpal tunnel syndrome. Accordingly, only the
medical evidence relating to Fairley’s carpal tunnel syndrome are summarized and discussed herein.
A treatment note from March 2011 states that Fairley’s type 2 diabetes was under
extremely poor control, which, Fairley admitted, was because of poor dietary restrictions:
ingesting soda pop, a lot of candy, and chocolate. Tr. 328. Treatment notes in May and July
2011 show that he was not doing appropriate blood sugar monitoring. Tr. 326, 324.
On March 5, 2012, Fairley went to the Mercy Regional Medical Center after he fell
through a grating at work, hitting his left leg and hip on a steel bar. Tr. 361. X-rays were
unremarkable and Fairley was diagnosed with left hip and knee strain/contusion and lumbar
strain/sciatica. Tr. 362. The next day, he saw Dr. Studer, who found, among other things, leftsided trapezius spasms. Tr. 374. Fairley was using a cane to walk. Tr. 374.
On April 2, 2012, Fairley underwent an independent evaluation with Dr. Paul Martin,
M.D., complaining of bilateral knee pain, bilateral upper extremity numbness and tingling, left
low back and hip pain and spasm, and “some neck problems.” Tr. 378-379. Upon exam, he had
an antalgic gait to the left and carried a cane. Tr. 379. He had significantly limited left hip range
of motion based on his reports of pain, but no evidence of soft tissue swelling. Tr. 379. His low
back was moderately tender to palpation on the left side and he had a fairly limited lumbar spine
range of motion due to reported pain, but no evidence of muscle spasm and a normal lumbar
lordosis. Tr. 379. He had low back pain upon slight dorsiflexion of his ankle and great toe while
supine and increased low back pain with hip range of motion and head compression. Tr. 379.
He had intact motor function and normal sensation and deep tendon reflexes in his bilateral
lower extremities. Tr. 380. He complained of significant left knee pain in a fairly diffuse
pattern. Tr. 380. Dr. Martin answered all the questions submitted to him in the form with
respect to Fairley’s back, hip and knee impairments; based on these, Dr. Martin opined that
Fairley was unable to return to work without a restriction and had not reached medical maximum
improvement at that time. Tr. 380-381.
On May 1, 2012, Fairley saw Satish Mahna, M.D., complaining of back and leg pain as
well as intermittent neck pain and intermittent tingling, numbness and weakness in his left hand.
Tr. 408. He was using a cane in his left hand to ambulate. Tr. 408. Upon exam, he had
tenderness in his left and posterior trapezial muscle with spasms, no focal trigger points, and
“some” restricted range of motion in his cervical spine. Tr. 408. His upper extremities were
unremarkable except for complaints of tightness in his trapezial areas with overhead reaching
and a positive Phalen sign, left greater than right.2 Tr. 408. His upper extremities had normal
neurological findings: no muscle atrophy or motor or sensory deficits. Tr. 409. Dr. Mahna
diagnosed Fairley with a sprain/strain in his back and left hip and knee, and “believe[d]” that,
“considering the mechanics of [Fairley’s] injury,” he suffered a cervical strain/sprain. Tr. 409.
Dr. Mahna recommended MRIs of Fairley’s lumbar spine and left knee as well as trigger point
injections in his lumbar paraspinal muscles and prescribed Percocet. Tr. 409.
On October 4, 2012, Fairley underwent an independent medical evaluation with Dr. Ira
Ungar, M.D. Tr. 410-417. Among his chief complaints of back, left hip and left knee pain,
Fairley also complained that his hands go numb. Tr. 411. Upon examination of Fairley’s lumbar
spine, Dr. Ungar commented that Fairley made exaggerated complaints of discomfort at extreme
ranges of motion. Tr. 413. Fairley exhibited exaggerated pain behavior “and 6 out of 7 Wadell
signs for somatic amplification are positive suggesting significant symptom magnification.” Tr.
413. An examination of his cervical spine showed no atrophy, spasm, or dissymmetry. Tr. 414.
His head posture was normal and his motion was smoothly coordinated. Tr. 414. He had minor
A positive Phalen sign is when numbness or paresthesias appears within 30-60 seconds after the test and indicates
the presence of carpal tunnel syndrome. See Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 32nd Edition, 2012, at 1714.
discomfort upon palpation of his paracervial muscles but no evidence of “tender or trigger
points.” Tr. 414. Manual muscle testing of his upper extremities showed no weakness or
evidence of atrophy bilaterally. Tr. 414. His grip strength was strong and equal bilaterally and
distal sensation was intact over all dermatomes. Tr. 414. Dr. Ungar found no evidence of
cervical myelopathic deficits by numbness, weakness or Hoffman’s tests. Tr. 414. Fairley’s
deep tendon reflexes in his biceps, triceps and brachioradialis were symmetric bilaterally. Tr.
414. Dr. Ungar answered all the questions submitted to him in the form with respect to Fairley’s
back, hip, knee and neck impairments; based on these, Dr. Ungar opined that Fairley was able to
return to work without restrictions and had reached medical maximum improvement at that time.
On December 26, 2012, Fairley saw Dr. Mahna and had tenderness and spasm in his
posterior and left trapezial muscle and “some” restricted range of motion in his cervical spine; he
carried a cane in his left hand for ambulating; and had a normal neurological examination of his
upper extremities. Tr. 388.
On March 26, 2013, Fairley reported that his pain had gotten worse, 10/10, and Dr.
Mahna prescribed Neurontin. Tr. 529-531. His physical examinations remained unchanged. Tr.
On April 16, 2013, Fairley complained to Dr. Mahna of “pressure type neck pain”
without radiation into his upper extremities and intermittent tingling, numbness and weakness in
both hands, left worse than right. Tr. 532. The neurological exam findings of his upper
extremities were normal. Tr. 533. Fairley reported that he had stopped taking Neurontin about
two weeks prior because of side effects. Tr. 534.
On September 25, 2013, Fairley underwent arthroscopic surgery of his left knee with a
partial medial meniscectomy. Tr. 620. In a follow-up visit a month later, he had full motion and
his preoperative pain was gone. Tr. 619.
On October 8, 2013, Fairley had an EMG study based on his complaints of numbness in
his hands and his history of diabetes mellitus type 2. Tr. 616. The study showed mild bilateral
median nerve compression neuropathy at the wrists consistent with a diagnosis of mild bilateral
carpal tunnel syndrome, slightly worse on the left side. Tr. 616. The reviewer also stated that
Fairley’s history of diabetes was resulting in developing changes of early peripheral neuropathy.
Fairley continued to see Dr. Mahna, who continued to report the same findings as in
previous visits; i.e., neck “essentially unremarkable,” with tenderness and spasm in his left and
posterior trapezial muscle and some restriction of range of motion in his cervical spine; he
carried a cane in his left hand for ambulating; and he had a normal neurological examination of
his upper extremities. Tr. 693, 696, 699, 702, 705, 708. Fairley started back on Neurontin. Tr.
On October 10, 2014, Fairley went to the emergency room complaining of pain in his
knees, low back and neck for the last week. Tr. 599. Upon exam, he had a supple and nontender neck with full range of motion. Tr. 599. He had a normal gait. Tr. 601. He had normal
muscle strength and tone, normal digits, and full range of motion and no tenderness in his upper
extremities. Tr. 601. He had tenderness in his bilateral lumbar paraspinal muscles. Tr. 601. He
was diagnosed with chronic back pain and diabetic neuropathy, was given prescriptions
(Percocet and Naprosyn), and discharged home. Tr. 601, 603.
C. Opinion Evidence
1. Physical therapist’s functional capacity evaluation
On February 6, 2015, Fairley underwent a functional capacity evaluation with a physical
therapist.3 Tr. 719-722. His past medical problems were listed as hypertension, heart problems,
diabetes, and neck, back, hip and knee problems. Tr. 719. Upon exam, his trunk flexion was
50% of normal, his extension was 25% of normal, and his bilateral side bend was 50% of
normal. Tr. 719. His upper extremity strength was decreased, 4/5, and his shoulder range of
motion was decreased. 720. The range of motion in his elbows, forearms, wrists and hands was
normal. Tr. 720. His grip and pinch testing was significantly below normal; the evaluator wrote,
“Mr. Fairley did not demonstrate maximum effort with grip and pinch testing.” Tr. 720. He
displayed poor body mechanics with the lifting tasks. Tr. 721. The evaluator opined that Fairley
had decreased grip and pinch strength, decreased fine finger manipulation, and decreased gross
motor coordination. Tr. 722. The evaluator stated that Fairley could perform sedentary work
with occasional standing, walking, repetitive arm movements, hand controls, and foot controls,
among other postural limitations. Tr. 722. The evaluator opined that Fairley could lift and carry
10 to 15 pounds occasionally and 0 to 5 pounds frequently and is unable to work. Tr. 722.
2. State Agency Reviewers
On April 22, 2013, state agency physician Diane Manos, M.D., reviewed Fairley’s
record. Tr. 95-96. Regarding Fairley’s physical residual functional capacity, Dr. Manos
opined that Fairley was capable of lifting 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, and had
no further restrictions with respect to his upper extremities. Tr. 95-96. He could stand and/or
walk for a total of four hours, sit for about six hours, and would need to change position in his
seat as needed for comfort. Tr. 95.
On August 24, 2013, state agency physician Leslie Green, M.D., reviewed Fairley’s file
and adopted Dr. Manos’s opinion. Tr. 109-111.
The physical therapist’s name is illegible.
D. Testimonial Evidence
1. Fairley’s Testimony
Fairley was represented by counsel and testified at the administrative hearing. Tr. 47-71.
He testified that he was injured at work in March 2012 when he fell down a grate at the steel mill
and hit his hip, back and knee on the way down. Tr. 48, 55. He ended up hanging by his hands
from the floor where he fell through and it hurt his neck as well. Tr. 55. He received worker’s
compensation benefits and had surgery on his knee. Tr. 52-53.
The surgery did not help his knee and it feels like it is getting worse. Tr. 53. He
currently has pain in both his legs and his upper back when he sits for a long time, and also his
hands go numb. Tr. 54. He started using a cane after he was injured because his knee was
hurting badly. Tr. 56. He can walk without the cane but uses it for walking long distances
because both his knees will give out. Tr. 56. He walks a lot slower than he used to. Tr. 56.
Fairley stated that he can walk for about 15-20 minutes before his back and legs start
hurting. Tr. 57. He can sit for about a half an hour and then he has to get up because his legs
start bothering him and he has to get up and keep moving for about 20-25 minutes. Tr. 57-58.
He does this throughout the day. Tr. 58. He also lies down during the day a few times for a few
hours because his medication causes him to sleep. Tr. 58-59. Sometimes he wakes up during the
night and takes a hot shower or bath when his body hurts badly enough. Tr. 60.
Fairley testified that he has difficulty using his hands; he drops things a lot since he got
hurt and was left hanging from the floor where he fell through. Tr. 63. When asked if he could
perform a job that required him to sit for an eight-hour day and do things like put small parts in a
box, he stated that he could not perform this work because his legs and arms would start hurting.
2. Vocational Expert’s Testimony
Vocational Expert Kathleen Reis (“VE”) testified at the hearing. Tr. 68-74. The ALJ
discussed with the VE Fairley’s past relevant work. Tr. 69-72. The ALJ asked the VE to
determine whether a hypothetical individual with Fairley’s age, education and work experience
could perform his past work or any other work if that person had the following characteristics:
can lift, carry, push or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand or walk
for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with the ability to
change positions in his seat as needed for comfort; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; must
avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and all exposure to unprotected heights; must avoid
contact with the public and can interact briefly and superficially, i.e., no arbitration, negotiation,
or conflict resolution, with coworkers and supervisors; cannot supervise or manage others or be
responsible for the safety and welfare of others; and can perform simple routines tasks at the
SVP 1 or 2 level with no fast paced production quotas. Tr. 72-73. The VE testified that such a
person could not perform Fairley’s past work but could perform jobs as a document preparer
(70,000 national jobs, 1,800 Ohio jobs), press clipping cutter and paster (7,000 national jobs, 50
Ohio jobs), and title addresser (8,900 national jobs, 70 Ohio jobs). Tr. 73. The ALJ asked
whether the hypothetical individual could perform the jobs identified or any other jobs if the
individual was limited to sitting for a total of 4 hours a day and standing or walking for a
combined total of 2 hours a day. Tr. 73-74. The VE answered that such an individual could not
perform any jobs because the characteristics described were less than a full workday. Tr. 74.
Fairley’s attorney asked the VE if her answer would change if the ALJ’s first
hypothetical individual was limited to occasional bilateral grasping and fingering. Tr. 74. The
VE answered that there would be no jobs that such an individual could perform. Tr. 74.
III. Standard for Disability
Under the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(a), eligibility for benefit payments depends on the
existence of a disability. “Disability” is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial
gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Furthermore:
[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable
to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy . . . .
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2).
In making a determination as to disability under this definition, an ALJ is required to
follow a five-step sequential analysis set out in agency regulations. The five steps can be
summarized as follows:
If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must
be severe before he can be found to be disabled.
If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, is suffering from a
severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous
period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a
listed impairment, claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
If the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ
must assess the claimant’s residual functional capacity and use it to
determine if claimant’s impairment prevents him from doing past relevant
work. If claimant’s impairment does not prevent him from doing his past
relevant work, he is not disabled.
If claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, he is not disabled if,
based on his vocational factors and residual functional capacity, he is
capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920;4 see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987).
Under this sequential analysis, the claimant has the burden of proof at Steps One through Four.
Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997). The burden shifts to the
Commissioner at Step Five to establish whether the claimant has the vocational factors to
perform work available in the national economy. Id.
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In his April 17, 2015, decision, the ALJ made the following findings:
The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security
Act through September 30, 2016. Tr. 14.
The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 5, 2012,
the alleged onset date. Tr. 14.
The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease with disc herniation at L3, L4, and L5; degenerative joint disease
of the knees; diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy; and
posttraumatic stress disorder. Tr. 14.
The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 15.
The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except the
claimant can lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds
frequently. He can stand and walk four hours and sit six hours out of an
The DIB and SSI regulations cited herein are generally identical. Accordingly, for convenience, further citations
to the DIB and SSI regulations regarding disability determinations will be made to the DIB regulations found at 20
C.F.R. § 404.1501 et seq. The analogous SSI regulations are found at 20 C.F.R. § 416.901 et seq., corresponding to
the last two digits of the DIB cite (i.e., 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 corresponds to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).
eight-hour workday. The claimant must be able to change position in his
seat as needed for comfort. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs,
and never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to
occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. He must avoid
concentrated exposure to vibration and all exposure to working at
unprotected heights. Public contact should be avoided. The claimant is
able to interact briefly and superficially with coworkers and supervisors.
He is limited to simple, routine tasks of the specific vocation preparation
(SVP) one to two skill level that do not have fast pace production quotas.
The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 33.
The claimant was born on October 19, 1966 and was 45 years old, which
is defined as a younger individual age 45-49, on the alleged disability
onset date. Tr. 34.
The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to
communicate in English. Tr. 34.
Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of
disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework
supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled,” whether or not the
claimant has transferable job skills. Tr. 34.
Considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual
functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that the claimant can perform. Tr. 34.
The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from March 5, 2012, through the date of this decision.
V. Parties’ Arguments
Fairley objects to the ALJ’s decision on two grounds. He argues that the ALJ failed to
fully and fairly evaluate his bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and failed to evaluate the VE’s
testimony. Doc. 16, pp. 1, 11-16. In response, the Commissioner submits that the ALJ’s
evaluations were proper and supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 18, pp. 10-15.
VI. Law & Analysis
A reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner’s conclusions absent a determination
that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact
unsupported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wright v. Massanari, 321
F.3d 611, 614 (6th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less
than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Besaw v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 966 F.2d 1028,
1030 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Brainard v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681
(6th Cir.1989) (per curiam) (citations omitted)). A court “may not try the case de novo, nor
resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d
383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).
A. The ALJ properly considered Fairley’s carpal tunnel syndrome
Fairley argues that the ALJ failed to consider limitations resulting from his carpal tunnel
syndrome. Doc. 16, p. 14. The Court disagrees. The ALJ considered Fairley’s diagnosis of
carpal tunnel. Tr. 24 (“An electromyogram conducted on October 8, 2013, showed mild bilateral
nerve compression neuropathy at the wrists consistent with a diagnosis of mild bilateral carpal
tunnel syndrome, slightly worse on the left side (Exhibit 9F/2; 11F/6).”). The ALJ also observed
the following in his decision: Fairley reported difficulties using his fingers to pick up small items
and dropping things (Tr. 19); he complained numerous times of numbness in his bilateral hands,
numbness and tingling in his bilateral upper extremities, and hand weakness (Tr. 20, 21); and he
had a positive Phalen’s sign bilaterally (Tr. 21). The ALJ also remarked that Fairley had
multiple normal upper extremity examinations (Tr. 22) and that Dr. Ungar found his pain
complaints exaggerated (Tr. 22). He discussed in detail Fairley’s evaluation by the physical
therapist, including Fairley’s decreased upper extremity strength and the evaluator’s opinion that
Fairley be limited to occasional repetitive arm movements, hand controls, and overhead
reaching; he also noted the evaluator’s statement that Fairley did not use maximum effort in his
grip and pinch test and showed poor body mechanics while lifting. Tr. 24.
Fairley does not challenge any of these findings by the ALJ. He only complains that the
ALJ relied on the state agency reviewing physicians’ opinions, which were rendered before
Fairley had the EMG that resulted in a diagnosis of mild bilateral carpal tunnel. Doc. 16, pp. 1314. But this was not error because the ALJ considered Fairley’s EMG results. See Ealy v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 513 (6th Cir. 2010) (rejecting an argument that the ALJ
erred when she relied on a state agency reviewer’s opinion that was based on an incomplete
record because the ALJ reviewed the complete record).
Fairley’s argument with respect to his carpal tunnel syndrome is, therefore, without merit.
B. The Court does not have adequate information to properly assess the ALJ’s
treatment of the VE’s testimony
Fairley argues that the ALJ failed to evaluate the VE’s testimony properly. Doc. 16, p
14. He asserts that the ALJ: (1) violated Social Security Ruling 00-4p when he failed to inquire
whether the VE’s testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”)
and the DOT does not address the limitation—the need to change positions as needed—that the
ALJ included in his hypothetical to the VE; (2) failed to inquire “further as to the actual
existence of the jobs” identified by the VE; and (3) failed to consider whether the jobs
identified by the VE exist in significant numbers. Doc. 16, pp. 14-15. Defendant contends that
the ALJ complied with SSR 00-4p when he confirmed, at the outset of the VE’s testimony, that
the VE knew to inform the ALJ if her testimony was inconsistent with the DOT; asserts that the
fact that the DOT does not address a limitation to change positions in a chair for comfort does
not mean that such a limitation is inconsistent with the DOT; and argues that Fairley waived
these and his other challenges to the ALJ’s treatment of the VE’s testimony because Fairley did
not raise them at the hearing, despite being represented by an attorney. Doc. 18, pp. 12-14.
Social Security Ruling 00-4p provides that an ALJ must ask the VE whether her
testimony conflicts with the DOT and, if it appears that it does, the ALJ must obtain an
explanation for the apparent conflict. SSR 00-4p, 2000 WL 1898704, at *4. Here, at the outset
of the VE’s testimony at the hearing, the ALJ confirmed with the VE that, if the VE were to give
an opinion that conflicted with the DOT, the VE should advise the ALJ of the conflict and the
basis for the VE’s opinion. Tr. 69. The ALJ then asked the VE a hypothetical question
describing an individual who “must be able to change position in his seat as needed for comfort.”
Tr. 72. There was no further relevant discussion about the DOT or what the limitation “change
position in his seat as needed for comfort” means, from either the ALJ, the VE, or Fairley’s
It is not clear what the ALJ meant by the ability to change position in a seat as needed for
comfort. The limitation was included in the state agency reviewing physicians’ RFC
assessments (Tr. 95, 109), which the ALJ gave great weight to. Tr. 32. Such a limitation does
not appear to describe a sit/stand option, as the limitation states that the individual would need to
change position “in his seat.” The ALJ, relying on the state agency reviewing physicians,
believed it to be a limitation because he included it in his RFC. It is possible that the limitation
means changing positions while seated such that the individual would be off-task during that
time, but this was not discussed at the hearing. Due to the paucity of the hearing testimony, the
Court cannot ascertain whether the ALJ’s limitation is in conflict with the DOT, i.e., whether
there was any error and if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Smith v.
Astrue, 2012 WL 6839317, at *9-10 (W.D. Wash. Dec. 21, 2012) (reversing and remanding
because the ALJ did not describe what “the opportunity to change position” meant, agreeing that
there “is no such thing as changing from the sitting to the sitting position”); Armer v. Apfel, 216
F.3d 1086, at *3 (10th Cir. 2000) (unpublished) (reversing when the ALJ’s RFC assessment was
not specific enough: “The ALJ’s finding that claimant would have to change positions from time
to time to relieve his symptomatology is equally vague.”). Accordingly, the case must be
remanded for further articulation. On remand, the ALJ can better explain the limitation “change
positions in his chair as needed” and elicit responsive VE testimony. If Fairley wishes to
challenge the VE testimony, his attorney should do so at that time.
For the reasons state above, the Commissioner’s decision is REVERSED and
REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.5
Dated: April 3, 2017
Kathleen B. Burke
United States Magistrate Judge
This opinion should not be construed as a recommendation that, on remand, Fairley be found disabled.
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