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Jackson v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 27, 2017

AZAR A. JACKSON, JR., Plaintiff,


          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.


         Plaintiff Azar A. Jackson, Jr., challenges a decision by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his applications for disability benefits. Plaintiff contends that (1) the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who reviewed the SSA's denial of benefits failed to comply with the requirements governing such review, and (2) the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review erred by not addressing new, relevant medical evidence that Plaintiff had obtained after the administrative hearing.

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. For the reasons stated below, the court grants Plaintiff's Motion and remands for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.


         A. Plaintiff's Social Security Administration Applications

         Plaintiff Azar A. Jackson, Jr., suffers from several medical conditions, including, as relevant here, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), narcolepsy with cataplexy, and insomnia. Admin. Rec., ECF No. 9 [hereinafter A.R.], Pt. 7, ECF No. 9-6 [hereinafter A.R. Pt. 7], at 319.[1] Plaintiff filed two applications for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”): (1) an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on September 16, 2011, and (2) an application for Supplemental Security Income on April 24, 2012. A.R., Pt. 6, ECF No. 9-5 [hereinafter A.R. Pt. 6], at 173-89. In his applications, Plaintiff claimed that he had been unable to work since August 2011 due to several medical ailments, including “[m]ental problems” and “[d]epression.” Id. at 173; A.R. Pt. 7 at 217. The SSA denied both applications on January 6, 2012, on the ground that Plaintiff had failed to allege a compensable disability. Shortly thereafter, it denied his request for reconsideration. A.R., Pt. 4, ECF No. 9-3 [hereinafter A.R. Pt. 4], at 62-105; A.R., Pt. 5, ECF No. 9-4 [hereinafter A.R. Pt. 5], at 102-05, 109-22.

         B. The ALJ's Ruling

         Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing to review the SSA's decision. A.R. Pt. 5 at 124-26. That hearing occurred on July 8, 2014. A.R., Pt. 3, ECF No. 9-2 [hereinafter A.R. Pt. 3], at 40-61. At the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) received documentary evidence detailing the severity of Plaintiff's disability and heard live testimony from Plaintiff and Georgette Gunther, a vocational expert. Id.

         The SSA uses a sequential five-step process to evaluate a disability claim, and the ALJ engages in that same process anew upon review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The inquiry requires that the ALJ evaluate: (1) the claimant's current and past work activity; (2) the severity and duration of the claimant's medically determinable impairments; (3) whether the impairments meet the requirements outlined in the SSA's Listing of Impairments; (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and past relevant work experience; and (5) the claimant's ability to adjust to other work that exists in the national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); see 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The applicant bears the burden of proof as to the first four factors; if he meets each of those criteria, then the burden shifts to the SSA to satisfy the fifth factor by demonstrating that the applicant is able perform other work. See Jones v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 350, 352-53 (D.C. Cir. 2011). To carry its burden on the fifth factor, the SSA must consider the applicant's RFC, age, education, and work experience in demonstrating that there are jobs in the national economy that the applicant can perform. See Id. at 353. “If there are not, the claimant is disabled and eligible for benefits.” Id.

         In a ruling issued on August 13, 2014, the ALJ followed the five-step process outlined above and affirmed the SSA's denial of Plaintiff's applications. A.R. Pt. 3 at 18-34. The ALJ began his written decision by quickly dispensing with steps one through three, finding that: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since August 2011; (2) Plaintiff's bipolar disorder and ADHD were severe, but his narcolepsy was not severe; and (3) Plaintiff did not have a qualifying impairment, as defined by the Listing of Impairments. Id. at 23-26.

         Although having found against Plaintiff at step three, the ALJ nevertheless moved to step four and discussed in detail Plaintiff's past work history and RFC. The ALJ first recounted the medical evidence he had reviewed and the testimony he had heard. He then found that Plaintiff had the RFC to maintain employment that “require[d] performing only simple, one to four-step routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment that require[d] only occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors and no contact with the general public.” Id. at 26-34. The ALJ further concluded that the “medical evidence” “demonstrate[d] that [Plaintiff] would be able to work fulltime within the parameters” of that RFC (i.e., performing simple, repetitive tasks in relative isolation). Id. at 31. Notably, in reaching his conclusion, the ALJ discounted the medical opinion of one of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Julian Redditt, and did not credit Plaintiff's own description of his disabilities. Specifically, the ALJ “assigned little weight” to the opinion of Dr. Redditt and, instead, assigned “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Norman Kane, the SSA consultant who reviewed Plaintiff's disability claim in 2012. Id. at 31-32. Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's description of the severity of his disability was not credible in light of other record evidence, including the fact that Plaintiff had been attending acting classes during the alleged disability period. Id. at 31.

         Finally, the ALJ addressed step five and determined that, in light of Plaintiff's RFC, and “[b]ased on the testimony of the vocational expert, ” Plaintiff was “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 33- 34. The ALJ thus concluded that Plaintiff did not qualify for disability benefits and affirmed the SSA's denials of benefits. Id.

         C. Administrative Appeal

         Dissatisfied with the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff submitted a letter to the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (the “Appeals Council”) to request review. Id. at 17. Plaintiff also asked for time to submit additional medical evidence, including the results of anticipated narcolepsy tests to be performed by Plaintiff's neurologist, Dr. Samuel Potolicchio. Id. The Appeals Council granted the request for additional time by letter dated October 30, 2014, wherein it invited Plaintiff to submit any “new and material evidence.” Id. at 8-9. Plaintiff later submitted additional evidence, which included: (1) two opinion letters from Dr. Potolicchio, dated July 24, 2014, and (2) the results of a wakefulness test performed by Dr. Potolicchio on November 20, 2014, which found that Plaintiff had “remarkable [and] significant daytime sleepiness, apparently not responsive to stimulant medication taken during the test.” A.R., Pt. 11, ECF No. 9-10 [hereinafter A.R. Pt. 11], at 1368-72.

         On November 6, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and affirmed the ALJ's decision. A.R. Pt. 3 at 1-7. Although the Appeals Council acknowledged receipt of the new evidence and made it part of the record, the Appeals Council did not specifically explain why that evidence did not warrant a reversal of the ALJ's decision. Id. at 2, 6.

         Plaintiff then filed this action, challenging the SSA's denial of benefits. See Compl., ECF No. 1. This matter is now before the court on Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of ...

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