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Griffin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 3, 2018

PAMELA GRIFFIN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR. ___). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 95-107). On appeal, the Appeals Council remanded the case for a second hearing. (TR. 114-115). A second administrative hearing was held and the same ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. (TR. 10-24). The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-6). Thus, the second decision of the ALJ dated November 22, 2016 became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011).

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 2, 2012. (TR. 13). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Griffin had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus; diabetes neuropathy; Dupuytren's contracture of the hand; and obesity. (TR. 13). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (TR. 18). At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Griffin retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except occasional overhead reaching with right arm and would need the left hand to stabilize any such reaching and occasional fingering.

         (TR. 19). With this RFC, a vocational expert (VE) testified that Ms. Griffin could perform her past relevant work as a “management trainee, ” as that job had been actually performed. (TR. 61-63). The ALJ adopted the VE's testimony and at step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled based on her ability to perform her past relevant work. (TR. 23-24).

         III. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ: (1) failed to comply with the Appeals Council's remand order and (2) erred at step four.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision “to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         V. THE ALJ FAILED TO COMPLY WITH THE APPEALS COUNCIL'S REMAND ORDER AND ERRED AT STEP FOUR

         Ms. Griffin alleges that the ALJ: (1) failed to comply with the Appeals Council's order to develop the record regarding Plaintiff's past relevant work as a “restaurant trainee” and (2) erred at step four in evaluating whether Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work. (ECF No. 11:5-19). The Court agrees.

         A. The Appeals Council's Remand Order

         In the first decision, the ALJ had found Ms. Griffin not disabled at step four, due to her ability to perform her past relevant work as a “restaurant trainee, ” Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) #189.167-018. (TR. 107). In its remand order, the Appeals Council questioned whether the job of “restaurant ...


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