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Curtis v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

January 20, 2016

Bryan Clifton Curtis, Plaintiff
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


J. THOMAS RAY, Magistrate Judge.


The following recommended disposition was prepared for United States District Judge Susan Webber Wright. A party to this dispute may file written objections to this recommendation. An objection must be specific and state the factual and/or legal basis for the objection. An objection to a factual finding must identify the finding and the evidence supporting the objection. Objections must be filed with the clerk of the court no later than 14 days from the date of this recommendation.[1] The objecting party must serve the opposing party with a copy of an objection. Failing to object within 14 days waives the right to appeal questions of fact.[2] If no objections are filed, Judge Wright may adopt the recommended disposition without independently reviewing all of the record evidence.

Reasoning for Recommended Disposition.

Bryan Clifton Curtis seeks judicial review of the denial of his application for social security disability benefits.[3] Curtis claims he has been disabled since March 17, 2011. At that time, Curtis worked for Tyson Poultry; he worked there for a few years.[4] Curtis based disability problems with his neck - spondylosis, myelopathy, and a bulging disc at level C6 - pain and numbness in the left shoulder and hand, and arthritis in the left hand.[5] He says these problems led to the loss of his job and prevent him from doing other work.

The Commissioner's decision. After considering the application, the ALJ identified severe impairments: cervical spondylosis and myelopathy, disorder of the left shoulder and left hand, and substance abuse mood disorder in remission.[6] The ALJ determined that, despite these impairments, Curtis can do some unskilled sedentary work.[7] Because a vocational expert identified available unskilled sedentary work, the ALJ concluded that Curtis is not disabled and denied the application.[8]

After the Appeals Council denied review, [9] the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision for the purpose of judicial review.[10] Curtis filed this case to challenge the decision.[11] This recommendation explains why the Court should reverse the decision and remand for further proceedings.

Curtis's allegations. Curtis argues that: (1) the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record and use the psychiatric review technique; (2) the ALJ should have ordered IQ testing and an orthopedic exam; (3) the ALJ erred in his evaluation of his counselor's medical statement; and (4) substantial evidence does not support the decision.[12] Because Curtis's first argument has merit, the Court need not address the merits of his other alleged grounds for reversal.

Applicable legal principles. When reviewing a decision denying an application for disability benefits, the court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the ALJ made a legal error.[13] For substantial evidence to exist, a reasonable mind must accept the evidence as adequate to show Curtis can do unskilled sedentary work and work exists that Curtis can do.[14]

The ALJ's evaluation of Curtis's alleged mental impairment.

Curtis argues that the ALJ should have considered his intellectual disability in the context of the psychiatric review technique. He relies on a diagnosis of mental retardation. He contends the ALJ did not properly analyze his mental impairment and failed to fairly develop the record because he did not order IQ testing.

A consulting physician included "mental retardation" as a primary diagnosis, [15] but a consulting psychologist estimated Curtis's intellectual functioning as low average.

Notably, the ALJ's decision reflects that he applied the regulatory psychiatric review technique to analyze Curtis's alleged "substance abuse mood disorder, " but did not apply it to Curtis's alleged mental retardation. The ALJ did not discuss the consultative report containing the mental retardation diagnosis until assessing Curtis's mental RFC, and then discounted it as being inconsistent with the remainder of the record.[16] According to Curtis, the ALJ should have applied the regulatory psychiatric review technique in the earlier steps of the review process in order to properly evaluate his intellectual disability and determine whether he met Listing 12.05 for mental retardation.

The Commissioner counters that the ALJ found that Curtis's mental retardation was not even a "medically determinable impairment, " and thus it was not necessary for the ALJ "to classify it as a severe or not severe impairment or whether it met Listing 12.05."[17] However, the ALJ's decision reflects no analysis of whether or not mental retardation was a "medically ...

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