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Watkins v. Berryhill

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

January 12, 2018

DENNIS L. WATKINS, JR. PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         I. Procedures for Filing Objections:

         The following Recommended Disposition (“Recommendation”) has been sent to Chief United States District Judge Brian S. Miller. You may file written objections to all or part of this Recommendation. If you do so, those objections must: (1) specifically explain the factual and/or legal basis for your objection; and (2) be received by the Clerk of this Court within fourteen (14) days of this Recommendation. By not objecting, you may waive the right to appeal questions of fact.

         II. Introduction:

         On April 12, 2004, Daniel Watkins (“Watkins”) filed for social security disability benefits. (R. at 49-50, 206, 223-24). On May 23, 2007, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held that Watkins was not entitled to disability benefits. (R. at 13-18). After the Appeals Council denied Watkins's request for review (R. at 4), he appealed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

         On June 23, 2010, the district court affirmed the Commissioner's decision, and Watkins appealed. See Watkins v. Astrue, E.D. Ark. No. 2:09CV00048-JTR. On March 31, 2011, the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings, because “substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's adverse credibility determination on Watkins's subjective mental complaints or the ALJ's mental RFC determination.” (R. at 388-400). Watkins v. Astrue, 414 F. App'x 894 (8th Cir. 2011).

         On November 9, 2012, after another administrative hearing, a second ALJ held that Watkins was not entitled to disability benefits. (R. at 404-14). On September 17, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded the case for further evaluation, [2]and specifically directed the ALJ to obtain a consultative mental examination, “if warranted and available.” (R. at 417-19).

         On May 21, 2015, after a third administrative hearing, the ALJ in this case denied Watkins's application for disability benefits. (R. at 258-73). On July 18, 2016, the Appeals Council denied his request for review (R. at 249-51), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On August 29, 2016, Watkins initiated this action in federal court.[3]

         For the reasons stated below, the Court recommends reversing and remanding the Commissioner's decision and ordering an immediate award of benefits to Watkins.

         III. The Commissioner's Decision:

         After conducting an administrative hearing, the ALJ rendered a decision finding that Watkins had severe impairments of mild right curvature of the thoracic spine and a shallow disk bulge at ¶ 7-T8, with reported back pain and joint pain; but, all of his mental impairments were non-severe. (R. at 261-62). Based on his severe physical impairments and work history, the ALJ concluded that Watkins had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform unskilled light work, performed by rote and involving contact with others that was superficial to the work performed, with only occasional climbing, stooping, crawling, crouching, and overhead reaching. (R. at 263).

         After taking testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Watkins was not disabled because his RFC allowed him to return to his past relevant work as an agricultural insect control inspector. (R. at 272-73).

         During the administrative hearing, the ALJ specifically noted the many years Watkins's disability claim had bounced among administrative and judicial proceedings and he vowed to give the case the time and attention it required to finally reach the right result:

“Believe me, I've read it all. … I spent half a day going through this file.” (R. at 349).
***
“What I've done is I've established to you [counsel] and to Mr. Watkins and of course, to the Courts and Appeals Council, I'm very familiar with his file. … This case has been before us twice. … We need to put an end to this case one way or the other. Hopefully the people who are reviewing this case, either when I pay this case or not, will realize I spent the time to know the facts of your case.” (R. at 350).
***
“Usually in a case with the remands and as old as this case is, it's an issue to expedite it, move it as fast as possible. I'm not going to follow that procedure in this case because this case has been heard twice by two different Judges. And this is the third Judge. It's been before the Courts. It's been to the Appeals Council over and over again. … Eighth Circuit. I mean so this case has been around. … So I'm going to leave the case open 60 days, not 30, but 60. And 60 days, that will give you time to have all the tests done to show anything that is going on with this individual. And if I don't receive anything within 60 days, I'll ...

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