Inability to Stoop and Social Security Disability
Although the Social Security rulings discussed below clearly provide that the complete inability to stoop significantly erodes the unskilled sedentary occupational base, the courts have not decided many Social Security disability cases pertaining to this issue. When presented with the applicable Rulings, the courts seem to agree that reliance on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines is improper and vocational expert testimony is required.
In most cases, however, the issue is never raised by the claimant. Please note that if a claimant can occasionally stoop, the unskilled sedentary occupational base is not eroded and vocational expert testimony is not necessary to establish disability based on the sedentary Medical-Vocational Guidelines. The following survey of cases does not include cases where a claimant failed to raise the issue of erosion of the sedentary occupational base due to the claimant’s complete inability to stoop.
If you are completely unable to stoop, your attorney should argue that the administrative law judge may not rely on the Grids if you are otherwise limited to sedentary work.
Social Security Ruling 96-9p
SSR 96-9p provides that an ability to stoop occasionally, i.e., from very little up to one-third of the time, is required in most unskilled sedentary occupations. A complete inability to stoop significantly erodes the unskilled sedentary occupational base and usually results in a finding that the individual is disabled. Id.A restriction to occasional stooping only minimally erodes the unskilled occupational base of sedentary work. Id.“Consultation with a vocational resource may be particularly useful for cases where the individual is limited to less than occasional stooping.” Id.
Social Security Ruling 85-15
SSR 85-15 provides that stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling are progressively more strenuous forms of bending parts of the body, with crawling as a form of locomotion involving bending. Some stooping (bending the body downward and forward by bending the spine at the waist) is required to do almost any kind of work, particularly when objects below the waist are involved. If a person can stoop occasionally (from very little up to one-third of the time) in order to lift objects, the sedentary and light occupational base is virtually intact. However, because of the lifting required for most medium, heavy, and very heavy jobs, a person must be able to stoop frequently (from one-third to two-thirds of the time); inability to do so would substantially affect the more strenuous portion of the occupational base.
Social Security Ruling 83-10
A limitation in a claimant’s ability to stoop is considered a nonexertional impairment.
Social Security Ruling 83-14
According to SSR 83-14, two types of bending must be done frequently (from one-third to two-thirds of the time) in most medium, heavy, and very heavy jobs because of the positions of objects to be lifted, the amounts of weights to be moved, and the required repetitions. They are stooping (bending the body downward and forward by bending the spine at the waist) and crouching (bending the body downward and forward by bending both the legs and spine). However, to perform substantially all of the exertional requirements of most sedentary and light jobs, a person would not need to crouch and would need to stoop only occasionally (from very little up to one-third of the time, depending on the particular job).
In Chester v. Callahan, 193 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 1999), the First Circuit held that the ALJ erred in failing to consider the claimant’s bending limitation in determining whether the sedentary occupational base was eroded. Id. at 13. The court noted that the doctor’s RFC assessment indicated that the claimant never could bend, and the ALJ failed to address this limiting factor in his decision. Id.
In Huhta, the court noted that the ability to perform the full range of sedentary work requires the ability to stoop occasionally, which means up to one-third of an 8-hour workday. Huhta v. Barnhart, 328 F. Supp.2d 377, 386 (W.D.N.Y. 2004), citing Social Security Ruling 96-9p. As the claimant’s treating and examining physicians all opined that the claimant could “never stand, walk, or stoop in an 8-hour workday” the court held that substantial evidence supported the conclusion that the claimant “had exertional and nonexertional limitations that precluded performance of the full range of sedentary work.” Id., citing SSR 96-9p (stating that “a complete inability to stoop would significantly erode the unskilled sedentary occupational base and a finding [of] disabled would usually apply . . .”) (emphasis in original).
A New York district court held that the ALJ committed legal error in failing to explain why he disregarded the RFC assessment of the claimant’s treating physician, who opined that the claimant could never climb, stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl, which are nonexertional limitations that significantly eroded his ability to perform sedentary work. Iannopollo v. Barnhart, 280 F. Supp.2d 41, 50 (W.D.N.Y. 2003). The court noted that, in accordance with SSR 96-9p, a “‘complete inability to stoop would significantly erode the unskilled sedentary occupational base and a finding that the individual is disabled would usually apply . . .’” Id.
In Parker v. Barnhart, 244 F. Supp.2d 360 (D. Del. 2003), the claimant argued that the ALJ did not consider SSR 96-9p in making his determination of nondisability. Id. at 368. However, the court held that since the claimant was found capable of occasional stooping, the limitation of SSR 96-9p leading to a usual finding of disabled was not present in this case. Id.
The ALJ erred in determining that the claimant could perform the full range of sedentary work, despite her inability to stoop. Hammond v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 424, 426 (4th Cir. 1985).
The ALJ erred in determining that the claimant could perform the full range of sedentary work, despite his reliance on a treating physician’s report stating that the claimant could not (among other movements) stoop. Davis v. Shalala, 859 F.Supp. 1011, 1016 (N.D. Tex.1994).
A Texasdistrict court rejected the claimant’s contention that, based in light of the claimant’s inability to stoop, a finding of disability was warranted. Bagwell v. Barnhart, 338 F. Supp.2d 723, 735 (S.D. Tex. 2004). The court explained that SSR 96-9p does not compel a finding of disability but, instead, provides that “an ALJ should consult a VE to determine a claimant’s RFC when the claimant is limited by an inability to stoop. Id., citing Lauer v. Apfel, 169 F.3d 489, 492 (7th Cir.1999); Sarabia v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 929, No. 97-56166, 1998 WL 382839, at *1 (9th Cir. May 26, 1998).
A Michigan district court noted that SSR 96-9p provides that a “complete inability to stoop would significantly erode the unskilled sedentary occupational base and a finding that the individual is disabled would usually apply, but restriction to occasional stooping should, by itself, only minimally erode the unskilled occupational base of sedentary work.” Allison v. Commissioner of Social Security, 347 F. Supp.2d 439, 447 (E.D. Mich. 2004) (emphasis in original).While the ALJ gave significant weight to a doctor’s findings, this doctor found that the claimant was not able to stoop and the ALJ failed to address this limitation in his RFC assessment. Accordingly, the court directed that the ALJ address the claimant’s inability to stoop on remand. Id.
In Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 322 F.3d 912, 917 (7th Cir. 2003),the Seventh Circuit held that the ALJ failed to address important evidence supporting the claimant’s claim (such as evidence that the claimant could not stoop).
The Seventh Circuit held in Lauer v. Apfel, 169 F.3d 489, 492-93 (7th Cir. 1999), that the district court erred in determining that SSR 96-9p required a finding of disability where the claimant was completely precluded from stooping and was also limited to sedentary work. The Seventh Circuit noted that SSR 96-9p does not compel a finding of disability, but rather “instructs adjudicators to consult with vocational resources when confronted with a claimant who is ‘limited to less than occasional stooping.’” Id.The court further noted that the district court improperly substituted its opinion for that of the Commissioner as to whether disability was mandated, as opposed to permitted, due to the inability to stoop, and remanded the case, with instructions to the district court to remand the case back to the Commissioner so that the Commissioner could determine the effect of SSR 96-9p. Id. at 493-94.
Although the court acknowledged that the ability to stoop occasionally was required to perform substantially all of the exertional requirements of most sedentary jobs, the court found that the ALJ properly found that the claimant’s testimony concerning his inability to stoop was not credible. Luna v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 687, 690-91 (7th Cir. 1994).
Where the claimant clearly suffered from nonexertional limitations of inability to walk or stand for extended periods in an 8-hour day and inability to stoop, crouch, or kneel, as these characteristics did not closely match those set forth in the guidelines, vocational testimony was required to determine whether there were jobs available that the claimant could perform. Wiley v. Apfel, 171 F.3d 1190, 1191 (8th Cir. 1999). Although a vocational expert did testify, the hypothetical was incomplete as it failed to consider these limitations. Id.
A Colorado district court noted that while the ALJ adopted the opinion of the independent medical examiner regarding the claimant’s residual functional capacity, he failed to include all of the restrictions set forth by this physician, and specifically ignored, without explanation, a crucial restriction from any stooping at all. Tyson v. Apfel, 107 F. Supp.2d 1267, 1269 (D. Colo.2000). The court held that had the ALJ considered all the limitations given by this doctor, including the complete restriction from stooping, he would have been compelled to find the claimant disabled. The significance of the stooping restriction is noted in Social Security Ruling 96-9p, which requires a claimant who retains the RFC for less than a full range of sedentary work to be found disabled if her limitations would significantly erode the occupational base for sedentary work. Id. at 1269.
In Higgins v. Barnhart, 294 F. Supp.2d 1206 (D. Kan. 2003), the court held that the ALJ’s RFC determination was in error, since it did not consider the claimant’s inability to stoop. Id. at 1211.
A Kansasdistrict court remanded a case to the Commissioner holding that there was no substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s finding that the claimant could occasionally stoop. Piatt v. Barnhart, 225 F. Supp.2d 1278, 1289 (D. Kan.2002). The court directed that, on remand, the Commissioner must consider the claimant’s complete inability to stoop upon his consideration of her RFC. Id.
In Tyson v. Apfel, 107 F. Supp.2d 1267 (D. Colo. 2000), the court held that the ALJ erred in adopting the opinion of the independent medical examiner regarding the claimant’s residual functional capacity, but failing to include a limitation of no stooping which would have required a finding of disabled. Id. at 1269-70. Since the substantial evidence of record established that the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, the ALJ should have proceeded to step five, and at that step, the claimant was disabled in accordance with SSR 96-9p. Id. at 1270.
An Alabama district court noted that “[a]n ability to stoop occasionally . . . is required in most unskilled sedentary occupations.” James v. Barnhart, 261 F. Supp. 2d 1368, 1372 n.3 (S.D. Ala. 2003). In James, the ALJ ignored the opinion of a podiatrist that a claimant can “never” stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, work in high, exposed places or use both feet for repetitive action and consequently also failed properly to refute them. Id. at 1371. The court remanded, in part, with directions to evaluate these opinions, noting that accepting this opinion concerning stooping or pain would preclude exclusive reliance on the Grids. Id. at 1371.
In Crooker v. Apfel, 114 F. Supp. 2d 1251 (S.D. Ala. 2000), the court rejected the claimant’s argument that SSR 96-9p mandated a finding of disability if a claimant is unable to stoop, finding that “[b]y its terms, SSR 96-9p does not mandate a finding of disability in this situation,” but rather provides that ‘[c]onsultation with a vocational resource may be particularly useful for cases where the individual is limited to less than occasional [i.e., no] stooping.’” Id.at 1257, quoting SSR 96-9p.
In Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992 (D.C. Cir. 2004), the D.C. Circuit held that in light of SSR 96-9p and SSR 85-15, it was “clear” that to arrive at the claimant’s RFC assessment, the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of her treating physician, who repeatedly opined that she could not stoop at all, reach, or lift any weight. Id.at 1001.