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Cox v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

August 5, 2019

MARIA ANN COX, Plaintiff,

          Black, J.


          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Maria Ann Cox filed this second Social Security appeal in order to challenge the Defendant's findings that she is not disabled. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Proceeding through counsel, Plaintiff presents two claims of error, both of which the Defendant disputes. For the reasons explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's finding of non-disability should be REVERSED and REMANDED for an immediate award of benefits because it is not supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

         The instant appeal is Plaintiff's second judicial appeal of an adverse disability decision.

         In January 2012, Plaintiff filed for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income alleging a disability onset date of September 30, 2003 (Tr. 210-15). The Ohio Division of Disability denied Plaintiff's disability claims in May 2012 and again in February 2013 (Tr. 28). After Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, she requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On March 27, 2014, ALJ Susan Giuffre held a video hearing at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert. (Tr. 28). At this hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to January 23, 2012, effectively withdrawing her SSD claim, and therefore only seeking Supplemental Security Income for a period beginning January 23, 2012 (Tr. 28). In May 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act (Tr. 28-47). In September 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review (Tr. 1), and in July 2016 the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision pursuant to a remand order by the District Court (Tr. 705).

         Plaintiff again appeared and testified at a hearing on February 14, 2017, where an impartial vocational expert also appeared and testified (Tr. 705). ALJ Thuy-Anh Nguyen concluded in May 2017 that Plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since her alleged onset date of January 23, 2012 (Tr. 706). In April 2018, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision (Tr. 775-780). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the second denial of her application for benefits.

         Plaintiff was 39-years-old on the date of the second ALJ's decision (Tr. 210-215) and held a high school diploma (Tr. 792). Plaintiff testified that she lives alone, takes her medication, socializes with a neighbor, and spends time reading with a friend's daughter (Tr. 710). Plaintiff's relevant past work experience included work as a laundry attendant (unskilled work ordinarily performed at medium exertion level but actually performed at light exertional level by Plaintiff), as a warehouse worker (unskilled work typically performed at medium exertional level but actually performed at light exertional level by Plaintiff), and as a fast food worker (unskilled work typically and actually performed at light exertional level) (Tr. 717).

         Based upon the record and testimony presented at the hearing, the second ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, asthma, hypertension, type II diabetes, obesity, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder.” (Tr. 708). Plaintiff reported at the hearing that she was not compliant with several medical treatments, including not taking her pain medications, not taking insulin, and continuing smoking (Tr. 713). The ALJ concluded that none of Plaintiff's impairments alone or in combination met or medically equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subp. P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 708). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to jobs on flat, level ground. The claimant is limited to frequent exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, and vibration. The claimant is limited to occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants, such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation. The claimant is limited to work in a static, defined as very little changes in work setting, without the need for fast pace or strict production quotas. The claimant is limited to no interaction with the general public and occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors.

(Tr. 710). Based upon the record as a whole including testimony from the vocational expert, and given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. Nonetheless, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform, including such jobs as routing clerk, a marking clerk, and inspector. Even if Plaintiff was further limited in time sitting and standing, Plaintiff could still perform the requirements of a mail clerk (Tr. 719). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not under disability, as defined in the Social Security Regulations, and is not entitled to DIB. Id.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Therefore, the ALJ's decision stands as the Defendant's final determination. On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: 1) failing to give controlling weight to Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist when determining Plaintiff's psychiatric RFC; 2) failing to support Plaintiff's physical RFC with substantial evidence. Upon close analysis, I conclude that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician.

         II. Analysis

         A. Judicial ...

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