United States District Court, D. Kansas
JEREMY W. REEVE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Jeremy W. Reeve seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges multiple assignments of error, including the Appeals Council's refusal to consider supplemental medical evidence, the ALJ's refusal to order a psychological evaluation, and the ALJ's evaluation of his credibility and residual functional capacity. Upon review, the Court finds that the Appeals Council erred in not considering the supplemental medical evidence submitted by Reeve with his request for review. Therefore, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and remanded for further consideration.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Jeremy Wayne Reeve was born on December 30, 1973, and was thirty-three years old on the alleged disability onset date. Prior to his alleged disability, Reeve worked as a supervisor at a call center and as a security guard. Reeve was not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of review.
On April 28, 2009, Reeve filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income,  alleging disability beginning June 1, 2007. Reeve alleged that he was unable to work because of back problems, sciatica, protruding disc, irritable bowel syndrome, and a slipped disc in his neck. The agency denied Reeve's applications initially and on reconsideration. Reeve then asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Administrative Law Judge James Harty conducted an administrative hearing on January 12, 2011, during which Reeve testified about his medical conditions. On May 23, 2011, the ALJ conducted a supplemental hearing, during which a vocational expert testified that Reeve would be able to perform light work in existing jobs in the unskilled labor market. In addition, Reeve's counsel and the ALJ discussed the potential need for a consultative examination concerning Reeve's mental health impairment. The ALJ determined, however, that the record contained sufficient evidence to make a determination regarding Reeve's mental impairment and therefore did not order a consultative examination.
On June 17, 2011, the ALJ issued his decision, finding that Reeve suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including obesity, hypertension, depression, and degenerative changes to the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spines. Despite these findings, the ALJ determined that Reeve did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ concluded that Reeve retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as that term is defined under Social Security Regulations, with the following limitations and/or exceptions: (1) only occasional lifting of twenty pounds and frequent lifting of ten pounds; (2) standing/walking or sitting about six hours in a normal eight hour workday, with normal breaks and with the option to alternate sitting or standing up for up to thirty minutes as needed; (3) occasional stooping, crouching, and climbing ramps and stairs; (4) no kneeling, crawling, and climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, (5) no overhead reaching; (6) no concentrated exposures to cold temperature extremes and vibration; and (7) only simple, routine, repetitive tasks and occasional interaction with the general public. The ALJ therefore concluded that Reeve had not been under a disability since June 1, 2007, the alleged onset date, through the date of his decision.
Given this unfavorable result, Reeve sought reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. Along with his request for review, Reeve submitted supplemental medical records relating to the time period between August 2011 and January 2012 and a letter from a treating physician dated June 4, 2012. The Appeals Council refused to consider the supplemental medical evidence and denied Reeve's request. As such, the ALJ's June 2011 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.
On May 22, 2013, Reeve filed a Complaint in the United States District Court, District of Kansas seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision and the immediate award of benefits or, in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for further consideration. Given Reeve's exhaustion of all administrative remedies, his claim is now ripe for review before this Court.
II. Legal Standard
Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is guided by the Social Security Act (the "Act") which provides, in part, that the "findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The Court must therefore determine whether the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion." The Court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]."
An individual is under a disability only if he can "establish that she has a physical or mental impairment which prevents him from engaging in substantial gainful activity and is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months." This impairment "must be severe enough that he is unable to perform his past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience."
Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. The steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined, at any step of the evaluation process, that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation under a subsequent step is unnecessary.
The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the Commissioner to assess: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of the alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of severe, impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those severe impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments. If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, ...