United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION (FEBRUARY 8TH, 2016) [DKTS. ## 11, 12]
RICHARD J. LEON United States District Judge
Plaintiff, Damon Dartanyon Mitchell ("plaintiff or "Mitchell"), seeks reversal of the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. See Compl. [Dkt. #1]. Pending before the Court are plaintiffs Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Pl's Mot.") [Dkt. # 11] and defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance ("Def.'s Mot.") [Dkt. # 12]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part plaintiffs motion and DENIES defendant's motion.
On December 22, 2008, then-46-year-old plaintiff Damon Mitchell filed an application with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") seeking Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Administrative Record ("AR") at 218-24 [Dkt. # 8]. Mitchell alleged disability beginning May 1, 1991 as a result of blindness in his right eye and deafness in his right ear, AR at 237, and, as of February 2009, increased tearing in his left eye, AR at 262. The Commissioner of the SSA ("Commissioner") initially denied his application on May 5, 2009. AR at 115. Mitchell then requested a hearing by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). AR at 124. ALJ Thomas Mercer Ray held a hearing on May 23, 2011, with Mitchell and his attorney present. AR at 45-79. On June 27, 2011, ALJ Ray issued a decision concluding Mitchell was not disabled and therefore ineligible for SSI benefits. AR at 30-40. The ALJ found:
[Mitchell] has the residual functioning capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations. The claimant was unable to performed [sic] duties requiring binocular vision, depth perception, and a full field of vision. . . . The claimant should avoid climbing ropes, ladders, and scaffolds. The claimant must avoid exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights.
AR at 33. Mitchell appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Appeals Council ("Appeals Council"). AR at 21. On July 12, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Mitchell's request for review and upheld the ALJ's decision. AR at 1-5.
Mitchell filed this action on September 21, 2012. See Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. Mitchell moved this Court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision, or remand the matter for a new hearing. Pl's Mot. [Dkt. #11]. The Commissioner moved to affirm the Commissioner's decision. See Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. #12].
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing the decision of an ALJ, a district court must determine whether the ALJ's finding are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006); Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. Cir. 1986); Jackson v. Barnhart, 271 F.Supp.2d 30, 33 (D.D.C. 2002). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Affum v. United States, 566 F.3d 1150, 1163 (D.C. Cir. 2009). Once it is determined that the finding is supported by such evidence, the court must treat the ALJ's finding as conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The court must also determine whether the ALJ correctly applied the relevant legal standards. See Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); Jackson, 271 F.Supp.2d at 33 ("Even if supported by substantial evidence . . . the court will not uphold the Commissioner's findings if the Commissioner reached them by applying an erroneous legal standard."). In so doing, the court must "carefully scrutinize the entire record, " Jackson, 271 F.Supp.2d at 34 (quoting Davis v. Heckler, 566 F.Supp. 1193, 1195 (D.D.C. 1983)), to determine whether the ALJ "has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits." Simms v. Sullivan, 877 F.2d 1047, 1050 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The court, however, may not "substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Chevalier v. Shalala, 874 F.Supp. 2, 3 (D.D.C. 1993 (citing Davis, 566 F.Supp. at 1195).
The Social Security Act provides SSI benefits for claimants who demonstrate they are disabled. Relevant laws define "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (2006); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505.
The Commissioner conducts a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The burden of proof rests on the claimant in steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004). Failure at any step of the evaluation ends the inquiry. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the claimant must show that he is not presently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has at least one "severe impairment" or combination of impairments that "specifically limits [his] . . . ability to do basic work activities" for no less than 12 months. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(h). At step three, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments "meets or equals" an impairment listed in the relevant regulations, Appendix 1 to subpart P of 20 C.F.R. § 404 ("Listed Impairments"). Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If equivalence is found, the claimant "is deemed disabled and the inquiry is at an end." Butler, 353 F.3d at 997; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If not, before moving to the fourth step, the Commissioner assesses a claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC")-that is, the Commissioner must determine the most work the claimant can still do despite his limitations. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), 404.1545(a). At step four, the claimant must demonstrate that he is incapable of performing his previous work based on his RFC. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant can "make an adjustment to other work" in the national economy, considering his age, education, past work experience, and RFC. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the Commissioner concludes that the claimant can engage in "other work, " then he is not disabled under the regulations. Id. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Otherwise, the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Id.
If a claimant's application for SSI benefits is initially denied, he may seek review by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). See Id. § 404.929. When an ALJ adjudicates disability claims, the ALJ must compile a comprehensive record incorporating all facts pertinent to the Commissioner's determination. See Simms v.Sullivan, 877 F.2d 1047, 1050 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The ALJ's opinion must show that he "has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, " id., including evidence that was rejected, Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 708 (D.C. Cir. 1986). A claimant may appeal the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470(a). As part of its review, the ...