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Conway v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 21, 2017

RAYBURN CONWAY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GEORGE J. LIMBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Rayburn Conway (“Plaintiff”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (“Defendant”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). ECF Dkt. #1. In his brief on the merits, filed on October 28, 2016, Plaintiff asks the Court to review whether the administrative law judge (“ALJ”): (1) violated the treating physician rule; and (2) erred in the weight assigned to the opinions of the state agency reviewing physicians. ECF Dkt. #15 at 13-23. On December 28, 2016, Defendant filed a response brief. ECF Dkt. #17. Plaintiff filed a reply brief on January 11, 2017. ECF Dkt. #18.

         For the following reasons, the Court REVERSES the ALJ's decision and REMANDS Plaintiff's case for: (1) re-evaluation of the treating physician's opinion in compliance with the treating physician rule; and (2) sufficient explanation regarding the weight assigned to the opinions submitted by the state agency reviewing physicians.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed his application for DIB in January 2014. ECF Dkt. #11 (“Tr.”) at 174.[2] In the application, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on September 17, 2012. Id. This claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 70-115. Following the denial, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, which was held on September 29, 2015. Id. at 32. On November 17, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for DIB. Id. at 10. Subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1. Accordingly, the decision issued by the ALJ on November 17, 2015, stands as the final decision.

         On July 6, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF Dkt. #1. Plaintiff filed a brief on the merits on October 28, 2016. ECF Dkt. #15. Defendant filed a response brief on December 28, 2016. ECF Dkt. #17. On January 11, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply brief. ECF Dkt. #18.

         II. SUMMARY OF RELEVANT PORTIONS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In the decision issued on November 17, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2015. Tr. at 16. Continuing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; an anxiety disorder; and an affective disorder. Id. Next, the ALJ determined that, since the alleged disability onset date, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 17.

         After considering the record, the ALJ found that since the alleged onset date Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following additional limitations: occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally stooping, kneeling, and crouching; never crawling; no work involving overhead reaching with either upper extremity or reaching in any direction with the right upper extremity; must avoid even moderate exposure to hazards (defined as industrial machinery, unprotected heights, or commercial driving); and the capacity to adapt to a work setting in which the duties were routine and predictable, and in which he could use a cane to ambulate. Id. at 17-18.

         Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had been unable to perform past relevant work since the alleged onset date. Tr. at 23. Continuing, the ALJ indicated that prior to the established disability onset date, Plaintiff was an individual closely approaching advanced age, and that his age category changed to an individual of advanced age on January 31, 2015. Id. The ALJ then stated that Plaintiff had at least a high school education and was able to communicate in English. Id. According to the ALJ, prior to January 31, 2015, the transferability of job skills was not material to the determination of disability because the Medical-Vocational Rules supported a finding that Plaintiff was not disabled whether he had transferable job skills. Id. The ALJ then indicated that since January 31, 2015, Plaintiff had not been able to transfer job skills to other occupations. Id. After making these findings, the ALJ stated that prior to January 31, 2015, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. Id. The ALJ then indicated that beginning on January 31, 2015, the date Plaintiff's age category changed, and considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform. Id. at 24. Based on these reasons, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to January 31, 2015, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. Id.

         III. STEPS TO EVALUATE ENTITLEMENT TO SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

         An ALJ must proceed through the required sequential steps for evaluating entitlement to social security benefits. These steps are:

1. An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be “disabled” regardless of medical findings (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b) (1992));
2. An individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will not be found to be “disabled” (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c) (1992));
3. If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement, see 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1509 and 416.909 (1992), and which meets or is equivalent to a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, a finding of disabled will be made without consideration of ...

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