Determining Residual Functional Capacity in Social Security Disability Cases - Shaw v. Commissioner of Social Security

October 27,2009
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When an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) considers a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, he or she is required to undertake a five-step analysis of the claim. One of those steps is determining the applicant’s residual functional capacity (RFC), or ability to perform work activities despite any physical or mental impairments. In Shaw v. Commissioner of Social Security, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York explains that this step is key to the ultimate question in an SSDI case: can the claimant work?

The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Shaw’s claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, in which she alleged that she was unable to work as a result of lower back pain, chest pain and shortness of breath, combined with intellectual functioning limitations. When the matter later went before an SSA Administrative Law Judge, the ALJ found that Shaw was not disabled for benefits purposes. After two successful appeals to the SSA’s Appeals Council, the matter went before a second ALJ in another hearing. This ALJ also found that Shaw was not disabled for benefits purposes because she retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of sedentary work and because she could perform certain jobs available in the national and local economies.

Affirming the decision on appeal in the District Court ruled that the ALJ did not err in first finding that Shaw’s lower back pain and chest pain with shortness of breath were not severe impairments. In order to proceed with a SSDI claim, the claimant must show that he or she suffers from one or more severe impairments that substantially limit his or her ability to work. “The mere presence of a disease or impairment, or establishing that a person has been diagnosed or treated for a disease or impairment is not, itself, sufficient to deem a condition severe,” the court explained, quoting its 2011 decision in Bergeron v. Astrue. Here, the ALJ found that the chest pains were non-severe based on treatment records showing that Shaw’s arteries were not impaired. Meanwhile, examinations of her lumbar spine showed relatively minor degenerative changes.

The court further said that any error with respect to determining the severity of these impairments was harmless because the ALJ nevertheless took them into account when considering Shaw’s RFC. Specifically, the ALJ found that Shaw retained the ability to lift, carry, push or pull up to 10 pounds and sit up to five hours in an eight-hour work day. The ALJ also found that Shaw could sit, stand or walk for up to one hour at a time and could maintain concentration for extended periods as well as keep up regular work attendance.

The District Court agreed with the ALJ’s finding that Shaw was therefore able to do a number of sedentary jobs available, despite her limitations. The court also said that the ALJ also rightly disregarded other supposed limitations not related to physical or mental impairments, such as Shaw’s purported need to take frequent cigarette breaks.

“In sum, substantial evidence supports the RFC determination and, therefore, it will not be disturbed,” the court ruled.

Despite the ruling in this case, it is our opinion as experienced New York Social Security Disability lawyers that the ALJ hearing is often a claimant’s best shot at proving his or her claim by presenting it in person in front of the judge. We provide comprehensive assistance to clients throughout the claim process, including during the ALJ hearing, by gathering the necessary evidence and presenting it in the most clear and convincing manner, as well as making the case before a judge when necessary.