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Sturgill v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 15, 2019


          Black, J.



         Plaintiff Naomi Ruth Sturgill seeks judicial review of the agency's final decision that she is not disabled, and therefore not entitled to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Widow's Insurance Benefits. Proceeding through counsel, Plaintiff presents four claims of error, all of which 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

         This is Plaintiff's second application for SSI Benefits. In the first application, the ALJ issued a fully favorable decision in March 2006.[1] However, her benefits ceased in June 2009 when her spousal income exceeded the limitations allowed by the SSI program (Tr. 246, 566). Plaintiff's spouse died on December 29, 2014.

         On February 4, 2015, Plaintiff filed a new application for Supplemental Security Income benefits and Widow's Benefits. (Tr. 221-231). The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 138-155). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 157-159). On July 27, 2017, ALJ Thomas McNichols held a hearing in which he heard testimony from Plaintiff, vocational expert, Eric Pruitt, and Plaintiff's case manager, Angela Duncan. On July 13, 2018, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 7-27). Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Social Security Administration Appeals Council on April 16, 2018. (Tr. 214-220). On July 13, 2018, the Appeals Council denied further review. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the denial of her application for benefits.

         Plaintiff was 54 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 33). She has a 10thgrade education and no past relevant work. (Tr. 216). Plaintiff testified that she is able to read newspapers, but unable to understand what she reads. (Tr. 34). Plaintiff also testified that her husband passed away and she lives in a house with her two brothers. (Tr. 33-34).

         Based upon the record and testimony presented at the hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “a seizure disorder; sensorineural hearing loss; residual effects status-post right wrist fracture; asthma; anxiety; and depression. (Tr. 13). 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. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations:

(1) no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) no work around hazards, such as unprotected heights or dangerous machinery; (3) no driving of automotive equipment; (4) limited to performing jobs in which she would be exposed to no more than moderate level background noise, such as that found in a department store or grocery store; (5) no jobs requiring telephone communication; (6) no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes or respiratory irritants; (7) limited to unskilled, simple, and repetitive tasks; (8) occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors; (9) no public contact; (10) no fast-paced production work or jobs that involve strict production quotas; and (11) limited to jobs that involve very little, if any, change in the job duties or work routine from one day to the next.

(Tr. 15).

         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 there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform, including such jobs as a machine feeder, polisher/buffer, and a conveyor feeder (Tr. 20). 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) finding claimant did not meet/equal Listing 12.06b, 2) weighing the opinion evidence of record, 3) not adopting the prior ALJ decision, and 4) affording little weight to the witness testimony of Angela Duncan, claimant's case manager. The undersigned finds Plaintiff's first and third assignments of error to be dispositive, thereby requiring remand.

         II. Analysis

         A. Judicial ...

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