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Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

May 1, 2017

GRANT MORGAN, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Grant Morgan filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) and an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits based on disability under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on May 3, 2006. On August 16, 2006, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and, thus, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff then filed for judicial review in this Court. On September 28, 2008, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion to remand his claim for the Commissioner to consider new and material evidence pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (ECF No. 39.) On October 31, 2008, the Appeals Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. On March 5, 2010, after a supplemental hearing on October 22, 2009, the ALJ again found that Plaintiff was not disabled. The case was reopened in this Court after the Commissioner filed a notice that the matter was ready for judicial review after remand. (ECF No. 41.) For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED, and the action is REMANDED for a reassessment of Plaintiff's credibility and the medical opinions in the record pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. “The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.”[1] The Court's review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, [2] and whether the correct legal standards were applied.[3]

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[4] It is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance.”[5] The Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve material conflicts in the testimony, and to decide the case accordingly.[6] When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.[7] “[W]hen there is not substantial evidence to support one of the ALJ's factual findings and his decision therefore must be reversed, the appropriate remedy is not to award benefits. The case can be remanded under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration.”[8]

         The Court may immediately award Plaintiff benefits “only if all essential factual issues have been resolved and the record adequately establishes a plaintiff's entitlement to benefits.”[9]“A judicial award of benefits is proper only where the proof of disability is overwhelming or [when] the proof of disability is strong and evidence to the contrary is lacking.”[10] These factors are not present in this case, and, therefore, an immediate award of benefits is not appropriate. However, a remand pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g) is appropriate because all essential issues have not been resolved.

         Plaintiff was born on August 5, 1966, and was thirty-seven years old on his alleged onset date. He took special education classes in high school and later received his GED. He has past relevant work as a press operator and kitchen helper. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning July 11, 2004, due to nerve problems, sleep apnea, back problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and mild mental retardation. Plaintiff last worked in January 2004.

         The ALJ enumerated the following findings: (1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2009; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date; (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoarthritis, obesity, sleep apnea, and borderline intellectual functioning; but he does not have impairments, either alone or in combination, that meet or equal the requirements of any listed impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (4) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work except that he can only stand or walk three to four hours and sit four to five hours; he is limited to following simple instructions on a regular basis; (5) Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work; (6) Plaintiff was a younger individual with a limited education on the alleged onset date; (7) transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules (“the grids”) as a framework supports a finding that Plaintiff is not disabled whether or not he has transferable job skills; (8) considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform; (9) Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date of this decision.[11]

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.[12] The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits.[13] The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that he is disabled from engaging in his former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background.[14]

         The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:

1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations.
4. An individual who can perform work that he or she has done in the past will not be found to be disabled.
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.[15]

         Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential analysis.[16] Here, the sequential analysis proceeded to the fifth step with a finding that, although Plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work, there is a substantial number of jobs that exist in the national economy that he can perform.

         Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's findings and that the ALJ did not follow all the legal rules in making his decision. He specifically argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion evidence and, instead, substituted his own judgment as to Plaintiff's cognitive abilities; did not adequately consider the impact of Plaintiff's mental limitations on his ability to perform unskilled work when making the residual functional capacity finding; failed to properly evaluate his credibility; and mistakenly relied on the vocational expert's testimony which was inconsistent with the residual functional capacity finding. The Court finds that a remand is in order because the ALJ failed to correctly assess both the medical evidence in the record and Plaintiff's credibility.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from borderline intellectual functioning and is limited to following simple instructions on a regular basis. In making this determination as to Plaintiff's level of mental functioning, the ALJ discounted the opinion of consultative examiner Ann Quinn Phyfer, Ph.D., that Plaintiff functioned in the mild mental retardation range based, in part, on the ALJ's view that Plaintiff's “malingering” resulted in lower scores.[17] While the ALJ is correct that an ALJ may consider that a claimant exaggerated his impairments when determining credibility, [18] in the present case, it appears that the ALJ arrived at his “malingering” conclusion based on a faulty reading of the record.

         Dr. J. Gray's treatment note of July 19, 2007, states that Plaintiff was “confronted” with malingering issues including not giving his best effort on an IQ test, hoping that a recent hospitalization would increase his chances of having his application approved, and not advertising his lawn service for fear that it would hurt his chances of having his application approved.[19] Despite Mr. Gray's concern ...

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