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El v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

December 18, 2019

TEPY SUTUKH EL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENNETH D. BELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15), as well as the parties' briefs and exhibits. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for Title XVI Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”).

         Having carefully reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that Defendant's decision to deny El's Social Security benefits is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to resolve apparent conflicts between the vocational expert's (VE) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Accordingly, the Court will GRANT Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENY Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REVERSE AND REMAND this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         El applied for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income Benefits on June 16, 2014 (Tr. 204-210).[2] His application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. (Tr. 16, 125-28, 134-43). After conducting a hearing on July 19, 2017, Administrative Law Judge Michelle D. Cavadi (“ALJ”) denied his application in a decision dated August 30, 2017. (Tr. 16-28). El then filed for a review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, which denied review on June 19, 2018. (Tr. 1-7). The ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, and El has requested judicial review in this Court.

         II. THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

         The ALJ used the required five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration to determine if El had been disabled[3] since the date his application was filed.[4] At step one, the ALJ found that El had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 14, 2014. (Tr. 18, Finding 1). At step two, the ALJ found that El had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, status post surgery to left hip with rod replacement and mild degenerative joint disease, right shoulder arthralgia, anxiety, obesity, cervical degenerative joint disease with disc bulge and no herniation, status post bone removal in left hallucal interphalangeal joint, status post planning of the sesamoid bone, and asthma. (Tr. 18, Finding 2). The ALJ considered El's impairments under listings 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) at step three and found that they did not meet or medically equal any listing. (Tr. 18, Finding 3).

         At step four, the ALJ found that El has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) with the following exceptions:

He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He can occasionally kneel, crawl, or crouch. He can occasionally stoop or balance. He can frequently handle. He cannot climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. He must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, fumes, dust, gases, and areas with poor ventilation. He is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. He cannot interact with the public. He can have occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. He is limited [to] work settings that only undergo routine changes. He can occasionally reach overhead. He can occasionally use foot pedals.

(Tr. 20). The ALJ further found that while El could not perform any past relevant work, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, he can perform other jobs that exist in significant number in the national economy. (Tr. 26-27, Findings 5 & 9). The ALJ found that El would be able to perform jobs such as mail sorter, photocopy-machine operator, and marker. (Tr.

         27). These are the same jobs the VE listed during the hearing. (Tr. 27).

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The District Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972).

         The Social Security Act provides that “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. ...


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