United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
MARILYN HEFFLEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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. 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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
was born on May 1, 1980. R. at 199. 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.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
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.
DAVIS' REQUEST FOR REVIEW
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.
SOCIAL SECURITY STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
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
(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
The Commissioner's Motion to Stay Is
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. 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.).
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
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
The Medical Evidence Regarding ...