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Melton v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 27, 2019

RONALD W. MELTON, JR. Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHONT. ERWIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Ronald W. Melton, Jr. brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) denial of disability benefits. The SSA Commissioner has answered and filed 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 SSA denied Plaintiff’s applications for benefits. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 31-48). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. (TR. 1-4).

         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 & 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 4, 2014, his amended alleged onset date. (TR. 34). At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Melton had the following severe impairments: disorder of the back, lumbar spine, status-post discectomy; partial amputation of the left foot; partial amputation of the right foot; and affective disorder. (TR. 34). 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. 35).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Melton was unable to perform his past relevant work, but retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the following additional limitations: tasks performed primarily performed at a work station; he can perform simple and routine tasks consistent with unskilled work involving no more than occasional, superficial interaction with the general public (considered brief, succinct and task oriented); and no more than occasional interaction with coworkers.

(TR. 38, 46). Based on the finding that Mr. Melton could not perform his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded to step five. There, the ALJ presented the RFC limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 181-182). Given the limitations, the VE identified four jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 182). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Mr. Melton was not disabled based on his ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 47-48).

         III. 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). Under the “substantial evidence” standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficien[t] evidence” to support the agency’s factual determinations. Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). “Substantial evidence … is more than a mere scintilla … and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (internal citations and quotation marks 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).

         IV. ISSUES PRESENTED

         Mr. Melton alleges: (1) the Appeals Council erred by failing to consider certain evidence and (2) the ALJ erred at step five. (ECF No. 19:4-11).

         V. ERROR BY THE APPEALS COUNCIL

         Mr. Melton alleges error in the Appeals Council’s failure to consider evidence submitted with Plaintiff’s request for review. (ECF No. 19:4-6). The Court agrees with Plaintiff.

         A. The Evidence

         When Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council following the unfavorable decision, he submitted additional evidence of a “Medical Source Assessment” (MSA) and a “Residual Functional Capacity Secondary to Mental Impairments” form (RFC form), both dated March 21, 2018 and signed by Dr. Gabriel Cuka. (TR. 8-15). The MSA rated Plaintiff’s mental abilities in four categories: Understanding and Memory, Sustained Concentration and Persistence, Social Interaction, and Adaption. (TR. 8-9). Each category contained particular limitations which were rated “1-5.” (TR. 8). A rating of “1” meant that the individual had the ability to perform the designated task with no observable limits. (TR. 8). A rating of “2” meant that the individual had the ability to perform the designated task, but with noticeable difficulty for no more than 10% or one hour or less of the workday. (TR. 8). A rating of “3” meant that the individual had the ability to perform the designated task, but with noticeable difficulty from 11-20% or more than one hour of the workday. (TR. 8). A rating of “4” meant that the individual had the ability to perform the designated task, but with noticeable difficulty for more than 20% or up to two hours of the workday. (TR. 8). And a rating of “5” meant that the individual was unable to perform the designated task. (TR. 8).

         In the area of “Understanding and Memory, ” Dr. Cuka rated Plaintiff: a “4” in his abilities to “remember locations and work-like procedures” and “understand and remember very short, simple instructions” and a “5” in his ability to “understand and remember detailed instructions.” (TR. 8).

         In the area of “Sustained Concentration and Persistence, ” Dr. Cuka rated Plaintiff: a “3” in his ability to “carry out detailed instructions;” a “4” in his abilities to “maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of time” and “complete a normal workday;” and a “5” in his ability to “complete a normal work week (without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods).” (TR. 8-9).

         In the area of “Social Interaction, ” Dr. Cuka rated Plaintiff: a “3” in his ability to interact appropriately with the general public;” a “4” in his ability to “accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors;” and a “5” in his ability to “get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes.” (TR. 9).

         Finally, in the area of “Adaption, ” Dr. Cuka rated Plaintiff a “3” in his ability to “set realistic goals or make plans independently of others.” (TR. 9). The RFC form rated various work-related limitations in three areas: Occupational Functioning, Performance Adjustments-Adaptive Functioning, and Personal-Social Functioning. The levels of impairment included: “none, ” “mild” (5%), “moderate” (10-15%), “marked” (20-35%), “severe” (40-65%), “extreme, ” (70-95%) and “total” (100%).

         In the area of “Occupational Functioning, ” Dr. Cuka rated Plaintiff: “severely” limited in his abilities to “maintain concentration for extended periods of time;” “complete a normal workday or work week (without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms) and perform at a consistent pace;” and “extremely” limited in his abilities to “understand and remember detailed or complex instructions;” “work in coordination or proximity to others without being distracted by them;” and “perform without an unreasonable number or length of rest periods.” (TR. 12-13).

         In the area of “Performance Adjustments-Adaptive Functioning, ” Dr. Cuka rated Plaintiff “severely” limited in his abilities to “respond appropriately to changes in work setting” and “respond and adjust ...


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