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Hulsey v. Astrue

October 15, 2010

TAMMY HULSEY, APPELLANT,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colloton, Circuit Judge

Submitted: April 14, 2010

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, COLLOTON, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

Tammy Hulsey appeals the judgment of the district court*fn1 upholding the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. We affirm.

I.

As of her most recent administrative hearing, Hulsey was thirty-nine years old. Her education ended after attending the eighth or ninth grade. She has not worked since 1993, the year in which she claims that she became disabled due to an assortment of maladies. Before the onset of her alleged disability, Hulsey was employed in several jobs, including most recently as a cleaner for a business that had been damaged by a fire. The administrative record shows that Hulsey has a history of treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, hypertension, headaches, depression, anxiety, and borderline intellectual functioning.

Hulsey's pursuit of SSI benefits has been ongoing for nearly two decades. In April 1993, Hulsey filed the application for SSI benefits at issue in this case.*fn2 Hulsey claimed in the application that she was disabled due to carpal tunnel syndrome and hypertension. Hulsey requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ ruled that Hulsey did not qualify as disabled under the SSA, and thus that she was not entitled to SSI benefits. The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for evaluation of newly submitted medical records that contained diagnoses of a somatoform disorder and borderline intellectual functioning.*fn3

In February 1995, the ALJ convened a second hearing, after which the ALJ again ruled that Hulsey was not disabled under the SSA. After the Appeals Council denied Hulsey's request for review, Hulsey sought review of the denial of benefits in the district court. The district court remanded the case for further consideration of Hulsey's residual functional capacity.

After an August 1998 hearing, the ALJ ruled that Hulsey was not disabled. The ALJ evaluated Hulsey's claim using the five-step evaluation process found in the social security regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At steps one and two, the ALJ found that Hulsey had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of her claimed disability, and that Hulsey's ailments constituted severe impairments that impacted her ability to perform basic work activities. At step three, the ALJ determined that Hulsey's impairments did not meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. The ALJ concluded at step four that Hulsey could return to her past relevant work as a cleaner, binding machine operator, or cashier. In finding that Hulsey could return to past relevant work, the ALJ relied upon a vocational expert's testimony in response to a hypothetical posed by the ALJ that precluded work with frequent bilateral grasping and fingering. Because Hulsey could return to past relevant work, according to the ALJ, she was not disabled under the SSA. Id. § 416.920(f). The Appeals Council denied Hulsey's subsequent request for review, and Hulsey sought review in the district court.

In a February 2000 decision, the district court found that the vocational expert's testimony that Hulsey could return to her past work as a cleaner, binding machine operator, or cashier was inconsistent with the physical limitations described in the ALJ's hypothetical, which specifically precluded jobs that involved "frequent" bilateral grasping or bilateral fingering. The court cited the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"), which stated that each of Hulsey's three prior positions involved either frequent fingering or handling. As a result, the court concluded that Hulsey satisfied her burden at step four of the evaluation process to prove that she could not return to past relevant work. The court remanded the case to the agency for evaluation under step five, which places the burden on the Commissioner to show that the claimant could perform other jobs available in the national economy. Id. § 416.920(g).

In July 2000, the ALJ held a fourth administrative hearing. The ALJ again concluded that Hulsey's impairments did not preclude her from returning to past relevant work, and thus that Hulsey was not disabled. The Appeals Council remanded, because the district court's ruling required the ALJ to evaluate Hulsey's case under step five of the evaluation process.

The ALJ held a fifth administrative hearing in April 2004. At the hearing, the ALJ provided the vocational expert with the following hypothetical.

I want you to assume that you're dealing with an individual who is the same age as Ms. Hulsey[, w]ith the same educational background and past work experience. Further assume that the individual is limited to light work with the following additional limitations. They [sic] couldn't do any jobs that would require a constant level of repetitive handling. No repetitive bending and stooping. No overhead work. It would have to be work of an unskilled nature involving only superficial interpersonal contact.

In response to the hypothetical, the vocational expert testified that the individual described would be able to perform cashier or housekeeping work available in the national economy. The vocational expert did not specify the DOT classification numbers for the occupations that she identified. On the basis of the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ concluded that the Commissioner met its burden to show that Hulsey retained ...


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