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Hilton v. Astrue

April 10, 2008

KATHY L. HILTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leon Jordan United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This is an action for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of defendant Commissioner's final decision denying plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Errors and inconsistencies in the administrative decision below leave this court unable to conduct a satisfactory substantial evidence review. Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [doc. 15] will therefore be granted to the extent it seeks remand under sentence four of § 405(g).*fn1 The Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [doc. 17] will be denied.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for benefits in September 2004, claiming to be disabled by "[o]steoarthritis, bad nerves, bad eyes, bad shoulder, neck spasms, [and] carpal tunnel [syndrome]." [Tr. 48, 55]. She alleged a disability onset date of August 1, 2002. [Tr. 48]. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 14, 2006.

On May 10, 2006, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. The body of that ruling contains the conclusion, at step four of the sequential evaluation process, that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to return to her past light-level jobs of substitute teacher, maid, or factory worker. [Tr. 17, 20-21]. The body of the decision also states that plaintiff suffers from only one "severe" impairment, arthralgias. [Tr. 19]. However, in the section of his opinion captioned "Findings," the ALJ stated, "The claimant's disorder of the left hand and anxiety-related disorders are considered 'severe[.]'" [Tr. 21].

Plaintiff then sought, and was denied, review by the Commissioner's Appeals Council. [Tr. 5]. The ALJ's ruling therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Through her timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought her case before this court for review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Analysis

This court's review is confined to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether his factual findings were supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

A. Remand

In light of significant errors contained in the ALJ's opinion, the court finds itself unable to conduct a satisfactory review. See, e.g., McCoy v. Dir., Office of Worker's Comp., Dep't of Labor, No. 88-3926, 1989 WL 128684, at *2 (6th Cir. Oct. 30, 1989) ("[T]he ALJ's imprecise finding is essentially unreviewable by this court since it is impossible to determine what evidence the ALJ credited and what evidence he rejected."). As noted, the ALJ's "Findings" state that plaintiff suffers from the "severe" impairments of anxiety-related disorders and "disorder of the left hand." [Tr. 21]. However, the body (or "Evaluation of the Evidence" section) of the ALJ's decision states that plaintiff suffers from the "severe" impairment of "arthralgias." [Tr. 19]. The ALJ deemed plaintiff capable of performing the full range of light exertion. [Tr. 20-21].

Clearly, the ALJ's severe impairment statements are in conflict. While the Commissioner now argues that the ALJ may have intended "arthralgias" and "disorder of the left hand" to be two descriptions of the same condition, that is mere speculation. Further, the ALJ did not explain how plaintiff can suffer from "severe" anxiety-related disorders yet remain capable of performing the full range of light exertion without any limitation in, for example, stress tolerance or production quotas.

The Commissioner also suggests that the ALJ's finding should be deemed a mere "misstatement." That invitation is tempting to a degree, as the ALJ's "Evaluation of the Evidence" section is dismissive of plaintiff's subjective mental complaints. [Tr. 19]. Ultimately, however, the court is unwilling to conclude that a specifically labeled "Finding" is a typographical error in its entirety. Irreconcilable conflicts exist in the ALJ's decision, and it is the ALJ who will be in the best position to cure those defects on remand.

The court additionally notes that the record evidence pertaining to what the ALJ termed "past relevant work" suggests that some of the jobs were highly sporadic or occurring more than fifteen years in the past. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.965(a) ("We consider that your work experience applies when it was done within the last 15 years, lasted long enough for you to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity."). In addition, there is no vocational evidence of record regarding the exertion level of the jobs that plaintiff was deemed still capable of performing. These issues, however, would appear to be no more than harmless error because the ALJ alternatively determined, at step five of the sequential evaluation process, that application of the grid renders plaintiff "not disabled" and thus ineligible for benefits. [Tr. 20].

Nonetheless, these vocational issues are additional indication that plaintiff received less than a deliberate and thoughtful adjudication below. A Social Security claimant is entitled to "a full and fair review of his or her claim, and . . . a well-reasoned determination or decision." SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *4 (July 2, 1996). "[A] fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process. . . . [and] [t]his applies to administrative agencies which adjudicate as well as to courts." Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 46 (1975) (quotation and citation omitted). "[T]he ultimate responsibility for ensuring that every ...


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