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Randall v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 29, 2019

DARREN FREDERICK RANDALL, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          CANDY W. DALE MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         Currently pending before the Court for its consideration is Darren Frederick Randall's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed December 20, 2017. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition for Review and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record, and for the reasons that follow, will remand this matter to the Commissioner to obtain a consultative psychological exam consistent with this opinion.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY

         Petitioner filed an application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on July 12, 2014, claiming disability due to the effects of fractured discs in his back, bilateral hand impairments, a heart murmur, injury to his left foot, and dyslexia. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on October 3, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stewart Stallings. After hearing testimony from Petitioner and vocational expert Polly A. Peterson, ALJ Stallings issued a decision finding Petitioner disabled on February 23, 2017. However, on April 13, 2017, the Appeals Council sent notice of their review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 20 C.F.R. 404.969. The Appeals Council found the ALJ's decision contained an error of law and the actions, findings or conclusions made therein were not supported by substantial evidence. Petitioner timely submitted additional statements and evidence for the Appeals Council, which considered the information but found the statements and evidence did not provide a basis for changing its decision.

         Petitioner appealed this final decision to the Court. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Appeals Council's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         At the time the Appeals Council's notice of review, Petitioner was 45 years of age. Petitioner did not graduate from high school but later obtained his GED; he also completed a classroom driving and training course to obtain his Class A license in 2004. Petitioner's prior employment experience includes driving a waste management truck.

         SEQUENTIAL PROCESS

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 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 his alleged onset date of August 20, 2010. At step two[1], it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's degenerative disc disease, left wrist arthroscopy, right hand torn tendons and ligaments, anxiety, and personality disorder severe within the meaning of the Regulations.

         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, specifically considering 20 C.F.R. Section 404.1520(d), Section 404.1525, and Section 404.1526. If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the ALJ 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, from August 20, 2010 through July 25, 2015, the date Petitioner became disabled, that Petitioner had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. Section 404.1567(a), with restrictions, including no more than brief superficial interaction with the public and coworkers, no teamwork, and only occasional contact with supervisors. The ALJ next found Petitioner was not disabled for the period on or before July 25, 2015, by applying the framework of Medical Vocational Rule 201.28. However, for the period beginning July 25, 2015, the ALJ found the claimant could perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. Section 404.1567(a), with restrictions, which included one to two unscheduled absences from work every month. Based on this assessment, the ALJ found Petitioner disabled beginning July 25, 2015.

         As stated above, on April 13, 2017, the Appeals Council sent notice of its review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 20 C.F.R. 404.969. The Appeals Council found the ALJ's decision contained an error of law, and the actions, findings or conclusions made by the ALJ were not supported by substantial evidence. In its decision, the Appeals Council found Petitioner had to establish disability on or before December 31, 2015-as that was the date of last insured. (AR 5.) The Appeals Council found the ALJ erred at step two by finding Petitioner had severe medically determinable mental impairments, because the ALJ made the finding without the support of objective medical evidence from an acceptable medical source. (AR 5, citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.152, § 404.1529, and Social Security Rulings 96-3p and 96-4p).

         After its own review of the record, including multiple additional supplemental statements submitted by Petitioner supporting his claims of mental impairment, the Appeals Council found Petitioner had not established a medically determinable mental impairment that could reasonably result in the mental symptoms alleged, and that his allegations of disabling symptoms from mental impairments were not supported by or consistent with the evidence of record. (AR 10.)

         The Appeals Council ultimately found Petitioner was not under a disability at any time during the period between August 20, 2010 and December 31, 2015-the date he was last insured for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits.[2]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         On review, the Court is instructed to uphold the decision of the Commissioner if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not the product of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Universal Camera Corp. v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474 (1951); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (as amended); DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). 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). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, Jamerson v Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         The Court cannot disturb the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence, even though other evidence may exist that supports the Petitioner's claims. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, will be conclusive. Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457. It is well-settled that, if there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, the decision must be upheld even when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner's decision, because the Court “may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Furthermore, a Court may not reverse a decision of the Commissioner for errors that are harmless. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). An error is harmless when it is inconsequential to the ultimate determination of whether a claimant is disabled. Stout v. Comm'r of SSA, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Within sixty days of the date of an ALJ's decision, “the Appeals Council may decide on its own motion to review the action that was taken.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.969. “The Appeals Council has authority to review the merits of the ALJ's determination of disability and is “not required to adopt the particular findings of the ALJ even if those findings were supported by substantial evidence.” Taylor v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 1985). A decision is not final until the Appeals Council either denies review or assumes jurisdiction and issues its own decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.955. Where the Appeals Council vacates the ALJ's decision and issues its own decision, the Appeals Council's decision becomes the Commissioner's final decision. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.969, 404.979. On appeal, the task of the district court is to “review the decision of the Appeals ...


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