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Davis v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 31, 2019

CHARMAINE TOWANDA DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MARILYN HEFFLEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Charmaine Towanda Davis (“Davis” or “Plaintiff”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) decision denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act.[1] In addition to opposing Davis' Request for Review, the Commissioner seeks to stay the proceedings. Doc. No. 19. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's Motion to Stay will be denied. Davis' 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 Davis' application; one who has been properly appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Davis was born on May 1, 1980. R. at 199.[2] She has a high school education and has completed a nine-month training program to obtain certification as a medical technician. Id. at 53-54. She applied for DIB and SSI benefits on October 17, 2014, id. at 19, alleging that she became disabled on April 1, 2013 due to: anxiety disorder, depression, hypertension, herniated disk and high cholesterol. Id. at. 203. Upon the completion of her training, Davis obtained a position as a medical technician in a prison in September 2016. Id. at 53-54, 263. Davis' applications were initially denied on April 1, 2015. She filed a written request for a hearing, id. at 101, and an ALJ held a hearing on her claim on August 9, 2017, id. at 32-63. At the hearing, Davis amended her claim through her attorney to a claim for a closed period of disability from April 1, 2013 through the time she returned to work on September 11, 2016. Id. at 35-36. On June 20, 2018, the ALJ issued an opinion denying Davis' claim. Id. at 19-26. Davis filed an appeal with the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council denied on October 26, 2018, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-6. Davis then commenced this action in federal court.

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         In her decision, the ALJ found that Davis suffered from a severe impairment due to degenerative disc disease in her lumbar spine. Id. at 22. She also found that Davis had medically determinable impairments of obesity, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder but concluded that those impairments were not severe. Id. at 22-23. The ALJ concluded that neither Davis' degenerative disc disease, nor the combination of her impairments, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 23-24. The ALJ found that, during the relevant period, Davis had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), ” id. at 24, and that Davis, therefore, could perform her past relevant work as a cashier, id. at 26. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Davis had not been disabled and denied Davis' claims for benefits during that period. Id. at 26.

         III. DAVIS' REQUEST FOR REVIEW

         In her Request for Review, Davis asserts that the appointment of the ALJ who presided over her 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), her case must be remanded for a new hearing before a different, properly appointed ALJ. In addition, Davis argues that the ALJ erred in the following respects: (1) finding that her mental impairments were not severe; and (2) finding that her past relevant work was as a cashier.

         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 Stay Is Denied

         Davis argues, for the first time in this action, that the appointment of the ALJ who presided over her case did not comply with the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution and that, pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Lucia, her case must be remanded for a new hearing before a different, properly-appointed ALJ. Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 10) at 3-4. The question of whether a Social Security claimant may raise an Appointments Clause challenge for the first time in a Request for Review filed in a federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) has produced conflicting decisions by courts in this District.[3] The undersigned recently has expressed her opinion on this issue in a Report and Recommendation issued in Pisacano v. Commissioner of SSA, No. 18-3182 (E.D. Pa. June 27, 2019), ECF No. 14, and will not address the merits of that question again here. The issue currently is under review by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in two consolidated cases: Bizarre v. Berryhill, No. 19-1773 (3d Cir.) and Cirko v. Berryhill, No. 19-1772 (3d Cir.).

         The Commissioner has filed a motion in this and other pending cases raising the Appointments Clause issue, seeking a stay pending the Third Circuit's decision in Bizarre and Cirko. See, e.g., Doc. No. 19. This Court also previously has expressed its opinion that a stay in the numerous pending cases raising the Appointments Clause issue is not warranted because it threatens to cause undue delay and hardship to claimants while it would not serve judicial efficiency because it would create a backlog of stayed Social Security cases for the Court, thus threatening even further delay. See Report and Recommendation at 4-7, Fuentes v. Saul, No. 18-3513 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 26, 2019), Doc. No. 24. In the present case, the Commissioner's stay argument carries even less weight because, as discussed infra in Section V(B)(3), this Court would remand the case to the Commissioner regardless of the outcome of the Appointments Clause issue due to substantive legal error in the ALJ's decision under review. As a result, staying the case until the Third Circuit issues its decision will only engender further, unnecessary delay.

         B. The ALJ's Review of the Evidence Regarding Davis' Mental-Health Impairments Was Inadequate and Her Decision Not to Include Any Limitations in Davis' RFC to Address Those Impairments Is Not Supported by Substantial Evidence

         1. The Medical Evidence Regarding ...


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