United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
JACQUELINE J. LOCKHART Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
TERRY F. MOORER, Magistrate Judge.
Jacqueline Lockhart ("Plaintiff" or "Lockhart") applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., on August 11, 2011 alleging that she became disabled on July 1, 2011 (Tr. 102). The application was denied at the lower levels of determination. Upon a timely request, Lockhart provided testimony at an administrative hearing held on January 28, 2013. The hearing was held before the Honorable Maria Kusznir, U.S. Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Lockhart received a fully favorable decision from the ALJ on May 6, 2013 (Tr. 11).
In her decision, the ALJ determined that Lockhart had not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time relevant to her decision. (Tr. 17). The ALJ found that Lockhart suffered from the following medically severe impairment: obesity, pituitary tumor removal, migraine headaches, hypertension, depression and cognitive disorder. Despite her medically severe impairments, the ALJ concluded that Lockhart did "not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFC Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526)" (Tr. 19).
Next, the ALJ determined that Lockhart had the following residual functional capacity:
[T]o perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) but she cannot walk more than two hours in a day. From a mental perspective, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to understand and recall simple material but could not process detailed or complex information. The claimant could execute simple one or two step commands, but could not follow detailed or complex serial instructions. The claimant would show irritable distractibility if required work in very close proximity to numerous others, but effect would fade with exposure. The claimant's contacts with the general public in work situations should be brief, superficial and infrequent. The claimant could be expected to respond adequately to direct, non-confrontational supervision. The claimant could adapt to simple, gradual, well-explained workplace changes. However, due to the combination of physical (obesity, migraines, blood pressure irregularities, pituitary tumor residuals, hormonal imbalances) and mental issues, she cannot sustain a 40-hour workweek on a regular and continuing basis and would require more than three breaks a day and more than two absences a month.
Based upon the above RFC, the ALJ found that Lockhart was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 22). The ALJ also found that Lockhart did not have any acquired job skills that would transfer to other occupations within the RFC defined above. Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ held that considering Lockhart's "age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there [were] no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she could] perform" (Tr. 22). The ALJ also found "that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, a finding of "disabled" is appropriate." (Tr. 23). As such, the ALJ determined that Lockhart had been under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act since July 1, 2001, the alleged onset date of disability (Tr. 23).
On July 1, 2013, however, Lockhart received a Notice of Appeals Council Action indicating that it was reviewing the ALJ's fully favorable decision and proposed to find that she was not disabled (Tr. 95-99). Thereafter, Lockhart received Notice of Appeal Council Decision Unfavorable dated August 28, 2013. In its decision, the Appeals Council found in pertinent part, as follows:
The Administrative Law Judge found that the claimant can perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), with additional non-exertional limitations that include, in pertinent part, that due to the combination of physical and mental issues, she cannot sustain a 40-hour workweek on a regular and continuing basis and would require more than three breaks a day and more than two absences a month (Finding 5). She then found that the claimant was disabled under the framework of Medical-Vocational Rule 202.21, 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (Finding 10). Upon careful review of the entire record, including an audit of the hearing, we conclude that substantial evidence does not support the decision.
Substantial evidence does not support the finding that the claimant cannot sustain a 40-hour workweek on a regular and continuing basis, that she would require more than three breaks a day, and that she would have more than two absences a month. The hearing decision gave substantial weight to the November 2, 2011, psychological consultative examination performed by Lee Stutts, Ph.D. (Exhibits 10F and Decision, page 7). During the examination with Dr. Stutts, the claimant reported that she has not felt the same since her surgical procedure to remove a pituitary tumor (Exhibit 10f, page 2). On examination, the claimant presented with a restricted affect and reported some depressive symptoms (Exhibit 10F, pages 102). She was unable to recall the day or date, perform serial 7s, or make change (Exhibit 10F, page 2). Dr. Stutts estimated the claimant's IQ to be low average to borderline (Exhibit 10F, page 3). This assessment is consistent with a September 10, 1980 administration of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children - Revised, that assessed the claimant with a Full Scale IQ of 76 (Exhibit 1F, page 4).
The decision also gave great weight to the November 22, 2011, mental residual functional capacity assessment by the State agency psychiatric consultant Samuel Williams, M.D. (Exhibit 12F and Decision page 7). Dr. Williams' assessment was largely consistent with the residual functional capacity in the decision, except it did not include the limitation that the claimant could not sustain a 40-hour workweek, that she would require three breaks a day and that she would be absent for than twice a month (Exhibit 12 F, page 3). Dr. Williams did opine that the claimant would miss one day of work per month because of her mental impairments (Exhibit 12 F, page 3). A review of the record does not reveal any treatment for her mental impairments, which is consistent with the claimant's report to Dr. Stutts that she went to a mental health clinic a month earlier, but did not obtain an appointment (Exhibit 10F, page 1). Additionally, the decision does not provide any rationale supporting the greater limitations and specifically stated with respect to the assessment of Dr. Williams that "the evidence received into the record after the initial determination did not provide any new or material information that would significantly alter findings about the claimant's functional limitations" (Decision, page 7). Accordingly, we adopt the mental residual functional capacity assessment completed by Dr. Williams and the limitation to light work assessed by the Administrative Law Judge in the decision.
(Tr. 4-5). As a result, the Appeals Council's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). Id. Lockhart appeals from the Commissioner's final decision and has exhausted all administrative remedies. Judicial review proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). After careful scrutiny of the record and briefs, for reasons herein explained, the Court REVERSES and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.
I. NATURE OF THE CASE
Lockhart seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits. United States District Courts may conduct limited review of such decisions to determine whether they comply with applicable law and are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405. The Court may ...