United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division
STEPHEN M. NEFF, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, CTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
JAMES D. MOYER, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Stephen Neff, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, who denied his application for disability insurance benefits. Mr. Neff asserts that the administrative law judge committed many errors of fact and law in his opinion and, accordingly, it is not supported by substantial evidence and must be set aside.
After reviewing the parties' fact and law summaries and the administrative record, the court concludes that the administrative law judge did err in his evaluation of the potentially exacerbating effect of Mr. Neff's obesity on his underlying impairments and in his evaluation of the medical opinion evidence. Accordingly, the court will reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand this matter for further proceedings.
Mr. Neff filed an application for disability insurance benefits in December 2010, and alleged that he became disabled in July 2009 due to diabetes, bipolar disorder, and a shoulder injury. After his application was denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Following the hearing, at which Mr. Neff and a vocational expert testified, the ALJ issued an opinion in which he determined that Mr. Neff suffers from the many more severe impairments than Mr. Neff initially alleged, specifically: diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, diabetic retinopathy, osteoarthritis, status post three left shoulder rotator cuff repairs, sleep apnea, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder. Although Mr. Neff is morbidly obese, the ALJ did not mention his obesity in this part of his analysis.
At the next step of his analysis, the ALJ concluded that none of Mr. Neff's impairments, either singly, or in combination, met or equaled the criteria of any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. In so doing, he mentioned Mr. Neff's obesity, but stated only:
In regards to Sections 1.00Q, 3.00I, and 4.00F,  the claimant's obesity fails to meet any section of the Listings, because there is no evidence in the case record of the requisite impact on musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, or other body system functioning.
He did not define or otherwise explain the term "requisite impact." The ALJ's evaluation of Mr. Neff's diabetes and his mental impairments was more specific and detailed, and included a summary of each listing and corresponding diagnostic criteria considered.
The ALJ then determined that Mr. Neff retains the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with a sit/stand option, plus other limitations necessary to accommodate his physical and mental impairments. Based on the ALJ's assessment of Mr. Neff's residual functional capacity, and Mr. Neff's employment history, the vocational expert testified that Mr. Neff is capable of returning to his past relevant work as a surveillance monitor.
This court must affirm the conclusions of the Commissioner of Social Security unless the administrative law judge failed to apply the correct legal standards or made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). "Substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, " and the reviewing court must affirm if substantial evidence exists, even if it would have reached a different conclusion. Jordan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 422 (6th Cir. 2008)(citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). That being said, the concept of "substantial evidence" cannot be satisfied by a highly selective reading of the administrative record, it must be supported by the record "taken as a whole." Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). "Substantial evidence is not simply some evidence, or even a great deal of evidence. Rather, the substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Id. at 388 (internal quotes and citations omitted).
With respect to the correct legal standards, administrative law judges must perform a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act:
1. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, but his impairment is not ...