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Morgan v. Saul

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

November 5, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] DEFENDANT


         I. Introduction:

         Plaintiff, Bryan Morgan (“Morgan”), applied for disability benefits on October 13, 2017, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2013.[2] (Tr. at 12). After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) entered her decision denying benefits. (Tr. at 31). The Appeals Council denied Morgan's request for review. (Tr. at 1). Thus, the ALJ's decision now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court[3] reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the case for further proceedings.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Morgan had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 1, 2016 through September 30, 2018, Morgan's date last-insured. (Tr. at 14). At Step Two, the ALJ found that Morgan has the following severe impairments: chronic knee joint pain, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and unspecified depressive disorder with anxious distress. Id.

         After finding that Morgan's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 15-17), the ALJ determined that Morgan had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of light work, except that: (1) he could perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; (2) he could make simple work-related decisions; (3) he could concentrate, persist, and maintain pace with normal breaks; (4) he would require incidental interpersonal contact with co-workers but he could not perform work with the public; and (5) he would require simple, direct, and concrete supervision. (Tr. at 17).

         The ALJ found that, based on Morgan's RFC and testimony from the Vocation Expert (“VE”), he was unable to perform his past relevant work.[4] (Tr. at 28-29, 60). Relying upon the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that, based on Morgan's age, education, work experience and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, including positions as Cleaner/Janitor (light physical exertion, unskilled, SVP 2) and Hand Packer (light physical exertion, unskilled, SVP 2). (Tr. at 30). Thus, the ALJ held that Morgan was not disabled. Id.

         III. Discussion:

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court's function on review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether it is based on legal error. Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). While “substantial evidence” is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, “substantial evidence on the record as a whole” requires a court to engage in a more scrutinizing analysis:

“[O]ur review is more than an examination of the record for the existence of substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner's decision; we also take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from that decision.” Reversal is not warranted, however, “merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.”

Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).

         It is not the task of this Court to review the evidence and make an independent decision. Neither is it to reverse the decision of the ALJ because there is evidence in the record which contradicts his findings. The test is whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole which supports the decision of the ALJ. Miller, 784 F.3d. at 477.

         B. Morgan's Arguments on Appeal

         Morgan contends that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. Specifically, he argues that: (1) the ALJ gave too much weight to the opinion of the consultative psychological examiner; (2) the RFC did not incorporate all of Morgan's limitations; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly develop the record. As a result of those errors, and other errors committed by the ALJ at Steps Four and Five of her sequential disability analysis, Morgan argues that the decision in this case must be reversed and remanded.

         Morgan is a 52-year-old war veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2016, he was assigned a 100% disability rating by the Veterans' Administration (“VA”) based on the severity of his PTSD.[5] (Tr. at 43, 49-50, 737). According to Morgan, during the Iraq War, his base in Kuwait was blown up and he saw many people die. (Tr. at 514, 618-620). He continues to struggle with nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, explosive rage, anxiety, road rage, suicidal tendencies, and addiction, as a result of his PTSD. (Tr. at 18-20, 709-722). At the administrative hearing, Morgan testified that, during times of stress, a switch gets flipped and he wants to kill someone. (Tr. at 51-55, 514).

         Morgan's second wife, Tara, filed for three Orders of Protection in 2011 and 2012, for his death threats and harassment of her and their two children. (Tr. at 214-264). At one point, Morgan was harassing Tara's coworkers. (Tr. at 272). Morgan's first wife, Kimberly, filed an Order of Protection in 1996 for similar reasons. (Tr. at 242).

         Morgan had trouble keeping a job because of his PTSD symptoms and explosive behavior. He worked at the U.S. Postal Service (“USPS”) in 2012 as a Postal Clerk Supervisor. (Tr. at 29, 47). Because of a confrontation with a coworker, the USPS sent Morgan for a mental evaluation, which was performed by William Fulliton, Ph.D. (Tr. at 794-797). According to Dr. Fulliton's report, dated January 5, 2012, Morgan had higher than normal levels of anger, triggered by insomnia. (Tr. at 47, 794-797). Based on Morgan's PTSD, insomnia, and depression, Dr. Fulliton found that “it is likely that [Morgan] will be unable to maintain emotional stability and the ability to work closely with others, without further treatment.” (Tr. at 796-797). Dr. Fulliton said that Morgan's aggressive and explosive behaviors were “not pathological of themselves, but describe someone who will likely find it challenging to work in a team.” Id.

         Based on Dr. Fulliton's findings, the USPS demoted Morgan from Postal Clerk Supervisor to Mail Sorter, and required him, as a special accommodation, to work in a room in complete isolation from his coworkers and supervisors. (Tr. at 19, 47-48). In April 2012, the USPS fired Morgan for allegedly stealing American flags from work. (Tr. at 194, 199-201).

         In 2013, Morgan attended barber school and began working as a barber in 2015. (Tr. at 48-51). However, in 2016, he was fired by the head barber, after only a few months of working, because of his contentious behavior toward customers. Id. According to Morgan, he could not find a job after that because of his reputation for having a short fuse. Id.

         1. Medical Evidence Documenting Morgan's LongStanding Struggles With Chronic PTSD And ...

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