Holding the administrative law judge failed to “clearly and rationally” articulate the reason for her finding that an Indiana woman who could sit for no longer than 15 minutes at a time would be able to perform a sedentary job, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeal remanded the case to the Social Security Administration for another review.
Tiffany Poole, 46, applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits that would have provided her with $625 a month. She suffers from a learning disability, anxiety and depression; all of which impair her ability concentrate and understand detailed instructions. Also, she has a degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and is only able to sit or stand for brief periods of time.
After a hearing in January 2019, an administrative law judge found Poole was not disabled. The ALJ first concluded Poole was limited to sedentary work, but then found she would need a job that allowed her to switch between standing and sitting every 15 minutes.
Next, the ALJ consulted the U.S. Department of Labor’s Directory of Occupational Titles, a publication that was most recently updated in 1991, and relied on a vocational expert who drawing from both the directory and her professional experience testified “there were hundreds of thousands of jobs” Poole could do. In the end, the ALJ denied Poole the benefits.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana affirmed the ALJ’s decision, but the 7th Circuit reversed in Tiffany Poole v. Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 21-2641.
In particular, the appellate panel agreed with Poole that the ALJ’s findings were at odds with each other. The ALJ first determined that Poole had a sedentary residual functional capacity which limited her to standing for two hours during a workday. However, the ALJ immediately deviated from that finding by noting Poole would have to alternate between sitting and standing which adds up to standing for four hours each eight-hour shift.
“We have no way of reconciling these contradictory findings,” Senior Judge Diane Wood wrote for the panel. “Either Poole can stand for four hours a day, and thus should have been put in the ‘light’ exertional level, or the ALJ correctly found that she belonged in the ‘sedentary’ category and thus could stand (or walk) at most for two hours a day. … When an agency decision is so ambiguous that it frustrates judicial review, it cannot be upheld.”
Acknowledging the ALJ’s decision would have been more “technically correct” if she had stated Poole was capable of light work rather than sedentary work, the Social Security Commissioner urged the 7th Circuit to proceed as if the ALJ had said, “light work.”
The appellate court refused, noting the exertional level is hardly an incidental part of the determination.
“Most of the time, it is the Commissioner who is urging us to respect the ALJ’s RFC determination,” Wood wrote. “We strongly doubt that the Social Security Administration wants to substitute a regime in which courts decide for themselves what an ALJ ‘really’ meant and disregard the ALJ’s own statements.”