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Keyes v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

January 16, 2020

NATHAN O. KEYES, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert F. Rossiter, Jr. United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Nathan O. Keyes's (“Keyes”) Motion for an Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision (Filing No. 14) seeking judicial review of the final decision of defendant Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), [1] denying Keyes disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and supplement-security income under Title XVI of the Act, Id. § 1381 et seq. The Commissioner filed a Motion to Affirm Commissioner's Decision (Filing No. 17) and resists Keyes's motion. For the reasons stated below, both motions are granted in part and denied in part and Keyes's claims are remanded.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts

         Keyes claims numerous ailments such as diabetes, depression, and reduced vision. Keyes focuses this appeal only on his vision issues, with complete blindness in his right eye and reduced vision in his left eye.

         Keyes, born in 1981, has a high-school education and previously worked as a box-maker and vending-machine repairer. On October 21, 2015, Keyes protectively filed for disability-insurance benefits and supplemental-security income, alleging a disability beginning January 1, 2014.

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Keyes's claims on February 3, 2016, and again on reconsideration on May 3, 2016. Through counsel, Keyes requested a hearing, which an SSA Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted on December 12, 2017. Keyes and a vocational expert testified.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         In a written hearing decision, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential process, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, for determining disability.[2]

         Keyes does not challenge the first three steps where the ALJ found Keyes has (1) not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, (2) the “severe impairments” of “diabetes mellitus, reduced vision, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hypertension, and obesity, ” and (3) no “impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.”

         As discussed below, Keyes does take issue with the ALJ's assessment of Keyes's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ determined Keyes

has the ability to perform light work . . . . He should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but has the ability to no more than occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl. He has no ability to drive commercial vehicles. He has the ability to read 14-point type or greater and must avoid work requiring bilateral visual acuity, but can avoid normal hazards in the workplace . . . . In addition, he has the ability to perform jobs that do not require binocular vision or work in dark areas (requires work to be performed in well-lighted places), no exposure to unprotected heights, and no use of foot controls bilaterally.

         The ALJ considered (1) Keyes's reported symptoms, (2) his daily activities, (3) information from Keyes's mother, and (4) medical reports and opinions from several treating and consulting physicians. The ALJ gave “the most weight” to the opinions of and a medical-source statement by Vikas Gulati, M.D. (“Dr. Gulati”), an eye specialist and Keyes's treating physician. Based on Keyes's RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Keyes is unable to perform his past relevant work.

         At step five, the ALJ considered the vocational expert's testimony regarding the availability of jobs for a hypothetical person of Keyes's age, education, and work experience, who had the restrictions identified in determining Keyes's RFC. Relevant here, the vocational expert testified the hypothetical person could, among other jobs, work as an office helper and a router, which are both light, unskilled jobs. The vocational expert stated there are approximately 64, 000 full-time office-helper jobs and 69, 000 full-time router jobs in the national economy.

         The vocational expert testified the hypothetical person could perform those jobs “with the caveat that . . . he would need to stay within the production requirements, but that's true for all unskilled employment.” The vocational expert mentioned the production issue because “with vision impaired people . . . the overall arching issue can become production and whether the person can be competitive in that area.” The vocational expert confirmed her testimony is consistent with the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), [3] U.S. Dep't of Labor, Employment & Training Admin., Dictionary of Occupational Titles, 1991 WL 645958 (4th ed. 1991), which the SSA relies on for disability determinations.

         The ALJ decided “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Keyes] can perform.” Accordingly, the ALJ found Keyes was not disabled.

         Keyes argues the ALJ erred because (1) the vocational expert provided a “qualified response” to the ALJ's hypothetical and the ALJ failed to resolve an “apparent conflict” between the vocational expert's testimony and the DOT's descriptions of an office helper and router and (2) the ALJ did not offer good reasons for the weight afforded to Dr. Gulati's opinions. Keyes also asserts the “ALJ was an inferior officer not appointed in a constitutional manner.”


         A. ...

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