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Medley v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 23, 2017

Ronald Wade Medley, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.

         The Social Security Administration (SSA) awarded Plaintiff disability benefits in March 2010, finding a disability onset date of December 18, 2008. (A.R. 22.) In June 2012, the SSA conducted a continuing disability review (CDR) and determined that Plaintiff showed medical improvement sufficient to return to work as of June 1, 2012. (Id. at 118.) Plaintiff appealed this determination, appearing in front of a Disability Hearing Officer (DHO), who affirmed the state agency findings of medical improvement. (Id. at 134, 145.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 152.)

         On May 7, 2015, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (Id. at 65-115.) On November 30, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision consistent with the opinions of the state agency and the DHO, finding that Plaintiff's disability ended within the meaning of the SSA on June 1, 2012. (Id. at 37.) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (Id. at 17-18.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (Id. at 1-6.)

         On November 11, 2016, Plaintiff sought review by this Court. (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 12), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 18, 22, 25). For reasons stated below, the Court finds that Commissioner's decision must be reversed and the case remanded for an award of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         To determine whether a claimant's disability is continuing or has ceased, ALJs are required to follow the eight-step CDR process.[1] See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f).

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. § 404.1594(f)(1). If the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant's disability is deemed to have ceased and benefits are terminated. If, however, the claimant is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two, where the ALJ analyzes whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment set out in the Listing of Impairments found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. § 404.1594(f)(2). If a Listing is met, the evaluation stops and the claimant continues to be disabled. If not, the analysis proceeds to step three.

         At step three, the ALJ evaluates whether medical improvement has occurred since the original determination of disability. § 404.1594(f)(3). If medical improvement resulted in a decrease in the medical severity of the claimant's impairments, the analysis proceeds to the next step. If there has been no decrease in medical severity, there has been no medical improvement and the analysis skips to step five.

         At step four, the ALJ determines whether the medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work. § 404.1594(f)(4). Medical improvement is related to the ability to work if it results in an increase in the claimant's capacity to perform basic work activities. If the improvement is related, the analysis skips to step six. If the improvement is not related, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         Step five applies where there has been no medical improvement or improvement that is unrelated to the claimant's ability to work. § 404.1594(f)(3), (4). If there has been medical improvement unrelated to the claimant's ability to work, the ALJ analyzes whether any exceptions apply. § 404.1594(f)(5). If no exception applies, the ALJ must find the claimant to be disabled. If certain exceptions apply, the analysis advances to step six. If certain other exceptions apply, the ALJ must find that the claimant's disability has ended.

         At step six, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant's impairments are sufficiently severe to limit his physical or mental abilities to do basic work activities. § 404.1594(f)(6). If the impairments are not sufficiently severe, the claimant is no longer disabled. Otherwise, the analysis proceeds to step seven, where the ALJ assesses the claimant's current residual functioning capacity (RFC) to determine whether he can perform past relevant work. § 404.1594(f)(7). If the claimant has the capacity to perform past relevant work, the claimant is no longer disabled. If not, the analysis proceeds to step eight, where the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any other substantial gainful activity. § 404.1594(f)(8). If so, the claimant is no longer disabled. If not, the claimant's disability continues.

         Here, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2012. (A.R. 24.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 27-29.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff experienced medical improvement as of June 1, 2012. (Id. at 29.) At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff's medical improvement was related to his ability to work because it resulted in an increase in his RFC. (Id. at 30.) Because the ALJ found that the improvement related to Plaintiff's ability to work, she proceeded to step six and determined that Plaintiff's impairments, in combination, were severe. (Id.) At step seven, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has had the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; [he should] avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and hazards such as unprotected heights. [He] is also limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, kneeling, crouching and crawling.

(Id. at 30-35.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff is incapable of performing his past relevant work. (Id. at 35-36.) At step eight, however, after considering 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 Plaintiff can ...


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