The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Candy W. Dale Chief United States Magistrate Judge
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
Arthur Eckermann ("Petitioner") seeks review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's final decision partially denying Petitioner's application for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition for Review and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record ("AR"), and for the reasons that follow, will remand to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Decision and Order.
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY
Petitioner filed an application for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits on May 5, 2005, alleging that he had been disabled and unable to work since January 1, 2000, due to back injuries and mental impairments (bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). (AR 49.) Because an applicant cannot receive Supplemental Security Income benefits for the period of time prior to the date on which the application is filed, Petitioner amended his onset of disability date to May 5, 2005. (AR 729.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Petitioner filed a timely written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. Two hearings were held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") R. J. Payne -- the first on April 14, 2008, and the second on June 27, 2008.
On August 7, 2008, ALJ Payne issued a partially favorable decision finding Petitioner disabled, due to a bulging disc in his back, beginning May 1, 2006, and extending through May 31, 2007. (AR 39.) The ALJ found that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act prior to May 1, 2006, or after May 31, 2007. (AR 40.) Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied Petitioner's request for review on June 4, 2010, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Petitioner timely filed an appeal of the Commissioner's final decision to the Court on August 4, 2010. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
At the April 14, 2008 hearing, medical experts Margaret Moore, Ph.D. and Henry Hamilton, M.D. offered testimony concerning Petitioner's mental and physical impairments. Petitioner testified at the second hearing, held on June 27, 2008, and was represented by counsel throughout the administrative process. Based largely on the opinions of consulting psychological expert Dr. Moore -- a non-treating, non-examining medical source -- the ALJ discounted the Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessments submitted by examining psychologist Dr. James Phillips and nurse practitioner Lynn-Marie Peashka -- both of whom indicated Petitioner had several "marked" and "severe" mental limitations.
Ultimately, the ALJ found Petitioner's testimony related to the severity of his impairments not credible, and found that Petitioner could perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). (AR 40-44.) The ALJ did not recruit the services of a vocational expert to offer an opinion concerning the effects of Petitioner's non-exertional limitations on his residual functional capacity, and instead employed the Medical-Vocational Rules as a basis for finding Petitioner not disabled. (AR 45-46.)
Petitioner was born on July 26, 1961, and was 43 years of age at the time of his application for disability benefits. Petitioner left high school in the twelfth grade, but obtained a GED while in prison. Petitioner's prior work experience is limited, but includes the following: work at a recycling plant from December of 2002 to July of 2003; approximately one month of construction work in 2002; and work as a carpenter between December of 1998 and November of 1999. (AR 293.)
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found Petitioner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since 2003. (AR 37.) At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found the following impairments severe within the meaning of the regulations: status post/history of two separate lumbar decompression surgeries; history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, combined type; and antisocial personality disorder. (Id.)
Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for the listed impairments. If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found that, beginning May 1, 2006, and extending through May 31, 2007, Petitioner's RFC was less than sedentary, and concluded under step four that Petitioner was not able to perform past relevant work.
If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five -- taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education and work experience -- that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. Based on the ALJ's finding that Petitioner's RFC was less than sedentary, the ALJ concluded that between May 1, 2006 and May 31, 2007, "there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed." (AR 45.)
After finding Petitioner disabled for the time period between May 1, 2006 and May 31, 2007, the ALJ evaluated whether Petitioner was entitled to benefits for the time period after May 31, 2007, and applied the seven step analysis contemplated by 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5), which requires the Social Security Administration to periodically review whether a claimant remains entitled to benefits after a finding of disability. Neither party challenges the ALJ's implementation of the seven step process and the Court will not address whether its application was appropriate in this case. The seven step process, as it was applied by the ALJ, is set forth below.
At step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(i). The ALJ maintained the conclusion from the initial five-step analysis that Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.
At step two, the Commissioner must determine whether medical improvement has occurred. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(ii). Medical improvement is any decrease in medical severity of the impairment or impairments as established by improvement in symptoms, signs and laboratory findings. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(1)(i). If medical improvement has occurred, the analysis proceeds to the third step. At step three, the Commissioner must determine whether the medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work.
20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(iii). Medical improvement is related to the ability to work if it results in an increase in the claimant's capacity to perform basic work activities. If it does, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. At steps two and three, the ALJ found medical improvement occurred related to Petitioner's ability to work. (AR 46.) Specifically, the ALJ stated that:
In comparing [Petitioner's] residual functional capacities, the undersigned finds that the claimant's functional capacity for basic work activities has increased. Here, the undersigned notes [that,] as with [Petitioner's back surgery in] September 2003, after his January 2007 back surgery, the claimant again did not require, seek or undergo any further medical treatment and treatment records for April 2007, indicated he had been fairly active including chopping wood, cleaning brushes and other heavy physical activities.
Similarly, he has also reported a history of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, but his mental health treatment has been minimal and his complaints and symptoms have generally been situational. More importantly, he reported significant improvement and admitted that medication kept his symptomatology under control/stable. (AR 46.)
At step five, the Commissioner must determine whether all of the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe. 20 C.F.R. 416.994(b)(5)(v). If all current impairments in combination do not significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities, the claimant is no longer disabled. If they do, the analysis proceeds to the next step. The ALJ found that "[a]t all times relevant to this decision," the Petitioner suffered from severe physical and mental impairments. (AR 37.)
At step six, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's RFC based on the current impairments and determine if he can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(vi). If the claimant has the capacity to perform past relevant work, his disability has ended. If not, the analysis proceeds to the final step. At the last step, the Commissioner must determine whether other work exists that the claimant can perform, given his RFC and considering his age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(vii). If the claimant can perform other work, he is no longer disabled. If the claimant cannot perform other work, his disability continues. To support a finding that an individual is not disabled at this step, the Social Security Administration is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.
At the last two steps, the ALJ found that, from May of 2005 until May 2006, and from July 31, 2007 until the issuance of the decision, Petitioner retained a residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, and that Petitioner's non-exertional limitations had "little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled sedentary work." (AR 46) (emphasis omitted). Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner was not able to perform his past relevant work in construction, as a carpenter, or as a forklift operator. (AR 44-45.)
At the final step, the ALJ applied the Medical Vocational Guideline Rules, and found Petitioner not disabled. (AR 46.) Specifically, the ALJ stated:
Prior to May 2006, and beginning July 31, 2007, with a residual functional capacity for sedentary, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, a finding of "not disabled" would be directed by Medical-Vocational Rules 201.27-29. Since the additionally noted non-exertional/mental limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled sedentary work, a finding of "not disabled" is appropriate under the framework of this rule.
Additionally, the undersigned also takes judicial notice that vocational experts have historically and routinely testified in prior hearings that[,] given an individual with the same age, education and work experience as the claimant in this case, and the type of non-exertional limitation (which the medical expert indicated were more mild than moderate), which is present in the case at hand, would not significantly erode the occupational/job base of all unskilled sedentary work. (AR 46) (emphasis in original).
Petitioner seeks review of the ALJ's denial of benefits for the time period prior to May 1, ...