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PEARSON v. COLVIN, NO. 14-2255

Decided: December 17, 2015

The Fourth Circuit reversed the order of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

On February 5, 2009, Plaintiff Jeffrey Pearson (“Pearson”) was laid off from his most recent job. Six weeks later, Pearson applied for Social Security disability benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Pearson claimed to be disabled due to arthritis of the spine, degenerative joint disease and a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, shin splints, degenerative artery disease in his feet, a hiatal hernia, irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Pearson’s application was initially denied and an administrative law judge (ALJ) affirmed the denial. The Social Security Appeals Council (Appeals Council) granted Pearson’s request for review and remanded the case for further consideration, including testimony from a vocational expert.

At the second ALJ hearing, the ALJ posed several scenarios to the vocational expert. The expert testified that the hypothetical individual with Pearson’s disabilities would have been unable to perform Pearson’s previous jobs, but that Pearson could perform many other jobs in the national economy The expert did not mention any conflicts between his testimony and what is contained within the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“Dictionary”). As such, the ALJ affirmed its initial denial of benefits to Pearson. The ALJ concluded the Pearson could not perform his past jobs, but that he could perform jobs that exist in a significant number in the national economy. The Appeals Council denied a second review. Next, Person filed this action in federal court. The magistrate judge recommended a grant of summary judgment for the Social Security Administration Commissioner (“Commissioner”). Person filed objections, but the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that it must uphold the determination of the ALJ when it has applied correct legal standards and the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. Pearson argued that the ALJ must do more than simply ask the vocational expert if his testimony conflicts with the Dictionary. The Commissioner disagreed, and argued that the ALJ only has the single “affirmative responsibility” to ask the vocational expert whether his testimony conflicts with the Dictionary. The Court agreed with Pearson and held that the ALJ must independently identify conflicts between the expert’s testimony and the Dictionary. The Court found that, in this case, the expert’s testimony conflicted with the Dictionary. However, the Court noted that this simply “means that the ALJ and the expert should address exactly what form of reaching the stated occupations require and whether the claimant can fulfill those requirements.” Therefore, in this case, the vocational expert must testify as to how many of the possible positions do not require bilateral overhead reaching so that Pearson could perform all aspects of the job. If there are a sufficient number of the positions that do not require frequent bilateral overhead reaching, then the ALJ can properly find that Pearson is not disabled.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case with instructions to remand it to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Meredith Weisler