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Fayyadh v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 22, 2019

JAMAL MOHAMMED FAYYADH, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MARILYN HEFFLEY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Jamal Mohammed Fayyadh (“Fayyadh” or “Plaintiff”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) decision denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[2] In addition to opposing Fayyadh's Request for Review, the Commissioner seeks to stay the proceedings. Doc. No. 17. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's Motion to Stay will be denied. Fayyadh's Request for Review will be granted on the alternative grounds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who heard this case was not properly appointed in the manner required by the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution and that the ALJ's opinion was not supported by substantial evidence. This matter will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion, including a hearing before a different ALJ than the one who previously reviewed Fayyadh's application; one who has been properly appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Fayyadh was born on February 12, 1980. R. at 140.[3] He is a native of Iraq who is unable to communicate in English. Id. at 140, 165. The record reflects that, sometime in 2005-2006, while working for an American organization in Iraq, he suffered multiple bullet wounds.[4] See id. at 175 (dating injury in 2005), 227 (dating injury in 2006). Fayyadh was admitted to the United States on July 31, 2014 as an asylee. Id. at 24, 164. He applied for SSI benefits on September 12, 2014, id. at 24, alleging that he became disabled on October 1, 2005 due to gunshot injuries to his hands and legs. Id. at 166, 175. His application was initially denied on February 10, 2015. Id. at 45-55. Fayyadh then filed a written request for a hearing on February 25, 2015. Id. at 61-63. A hearing before an ALJ was scheduled for December 8, 2016, but was continued because Fayyadh was out of the country in Jordan. Id. at 24. The hearing was rescheduled for March 30, 2017. Id. Fayyadh, however, also failed to appear for the rescheduled hearing, and his counsel represented that he had not heard from Fayyadh since late 2016 despite having made efforts to contact him. Id. at 39-40. The ALJ proceeded, without objection from Fayyadh's counsel, to decide the case on the existing record. Id. at 42-43. On June 6, 2017, the ALJ issued an opinion determining that Fayyadh was not disabled. Id. at 24-32. Fayyadh filed an appeal with the Appeals Council on August 10, 2017. Id. at 130-33. On September 14, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Fayyadh's request for review, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-6. Fayyadh then commenced this action in federal court.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Fayyadh suffered from the following severe impairments: status post gunshot wound with neuropathy of the foot, major depressive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Id. at 26. The ALJ concluded, however, that none of Fayyadh's impairments, nor the combination of those impairments, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 27-28. The ALJ found that Fayyadh had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a), except the claimant is limited to no more than routine repetitive tasks.” Id. at 28. Although a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared at the hearing, id. at 37, the ALJ did not seek any testimony from her, either at the hearing or in subsequent interrogatories. See id. at 32. Instead, the ALJ found that Fayyadh's physical impairments limited him to sedentary work and that Fayyadh's “additional [nonexertional] limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled sedentary work.” Id. The ALJ cited to SSR 96-9p, 1996 WL 374185 (July 2, 1996) as his basis for concluding that Fayyadh's nonexertional limitations would not significantly reduce the occupational base available for persons whose exertional restrictions confined them to sedentary work. R. at 32. Based on that finding, the ALJ relied on Medical-Vocational Rule 201.23, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 § 201.23, as a framework for concluding that Fayyadh was not disabled. R. at 32.

         III. FAYYADH'S REQUEST FOR REVIEW

         In his Request for Review, Fayyadh asserts that the appointment of the ALJ who presided over his case did not comply with the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution and that, pursuant to the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission, 138 S.Ct. 2044 (2018), his case must be remanded for a new hearing before a different, properly-appointed ALJ. In addition, Fayyadh argues that the ALJ erred in the following respects: (1) failing to properly address the medical evidence in formulating his RFC; and (2) determining that he was capable of performing other work available in the national economy by relying on the Medical Vocational Grids (the “Grids”) without taking testimony from a VE.

         IV. SOCIAL SECURITY STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The role of the court in reviewing an administrative decision denying benefits in a Social Security matter is to uphold any factual determination made by the ALJ that is supported by “substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). A reviewing court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision in order to reweigh the evidence. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). The court's scope of review is “limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's finding of fact.” Schwartz v. Halter, 134 F.Supp.2d 640, 647 (E.D. Pa. 2001).

         Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564-65 (1988)); Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987). It is “more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The court's review is plenary as to the ALJ's application of legal standards. Krysztoforski v. Chater, 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995).

         To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate some medically determinable basis for a physical or mental impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a 12-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); accord id. § 423(d)(1). As explained in the applicable agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step sequential analysis:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. (ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirements in § 416.909, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. (iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. (iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. (v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (references to other regulations omitted).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The Commissioner's Motion to ...


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