7th Circuit affirms denial of disability for obese woman

A woman seeking disability insurance benefits was again denied her request when a unanimous 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a sit/stand limitation in her residual functioning capacity assessment was not vague.

Judy Prater applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits in 2015, alleging her disability onset was earlier that year. Two years after her alleged onset date — at the time the administrative law judge denied her petition — Prater weighed 400 pounds and stood 5 feet, 4 inches tall.

Diagnosed with morbid obesity, Prater stated that at her most recent job in a factory, she experienced pain and fatigue “all the time.” Prater’s difficulties with standing and sitting for extended periods were addressed by three different state-agency physicians, two of whom concluded that Prater could stand for a total of two hours and sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. One physician found that Prater “appear[ed] to have limitations in regard[] to prolonged standing.”

During a hearing before an administrative law judge, Prater asserted that after working one hour in the factory while standing up, she would lose her breath, and her feet, legs, and back would start to hurt. The pain would continue after she stopped working and because of the pain, she could either stand or sit for only 20 minutes at a time.

The ALJ concluded that Prater was not disabled because she could work as an address clerk, a document preparer, or a surveillance monitor as recommended by a vocational expert. It also noted that Prater had experienced only “mild to moderate” degenerative changes in her feet, legs, and back and that although she was morbidly obese, “her physical examination was otherwise unremarkable.”

Prater’s request to review the decision as denied by the appeals council, and she argued to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana that the sit/stand limitation in the RFC formulation was impermissibly vague. The district court rejected her argument as well.

In a per curiam decision, the 7th Circuit of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial, finding the RFC formulation was not vague and was supported by substantial evidence.

Specifically, the 7th Circuit noted that Prater “strains to read into the RFC formulation ambiguity that is not there.” It rejected her reliance on Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 593 (7th Cir. 2012), noting that in Prater’s case, her RFC assessment provides that she must be permitted to alternate between sitting and standing “as needed,” rather than “throughout the workday” as read in Arnett.

“Moreover, and contrary to Ms. Prater’s argument, layering a frequency limitation onto the ‘as needed’ position-change requirement does not make the ‘hybrid’ restriction ambiguous. As the ALJ’s colloquy with the VE illustrates, the thirty-minute constraint conveys that the claimant will not be off-task too frequently throughout the day to preclude competitive employment,” the 7th Circuit wrote in a per curiam opinion.

It thus concluded that the time limit does not introduce ambiguity and that the ALJ permissibly relied on the VE’s testimony that someone who must alternate positions at will, but not more than every 30 minutes, can maintain employment.

“Critically, Ms. Prater does not argue that the ALJ’s finding that she could both sit and stand for thirty minutes at a time lacks medical support, or that the ALJ improperly discredited her testimony that she could remain in each position for only twenty minutes. Nor does she assert — let alone cite evidence to show — that she requires a more restrictive RFC formulation,” it concluded.

The case is Judy Prater v. Andrew Saul, 19-2263.

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