United States District Court, D. Utah
ERIC L. A., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER REMANDING THE
COMMISSIONER’S FINAL DECISION DENYING DISABILITY
BENEFITS AND SUPPLEMENTAL SECURITY INCOME
Honorable Evelyn J. Furse, United States Magistrate Judge
Judge Evelyn J. Furse Plaintiff Eric A. (“Mr.
A”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial
review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s
(“Commissioner”) denial of his claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
After careful review of the entire record, the parties’
briefs, and arguments presented at a telephonic hearing held
on August 28, 2019, the Court REMANDS this case to the
Commissioner for further consideration.
applied for disability benefits and supplemental security
income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act
(“Act”) alleging disability beginning July 1,
2009 (certified copy of the transcript of the entire record
of the administrative proceedings relating to Eric L. A.
(“Tr. __ ”), Tr. 191, 208-214, 215-220, ECF No.
13-2). Mr. A.’s claim was denied initially on July 28,
2015 (Tr. 126-133) and upon reconsideration on December 11,
2015 (Tr. 136-141). Mr. A. made a timely request for an
administrative hearing (Tr. 142-43). An administrative
hearing was held on May 24, 2017 before Administrative Law
Judge Christel Ambuehl. (Tr. 33-75). On August 30, 2017, the
ALJ determined Mr. A. retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels with certain nonexertional
limitations thereby rendering him not disabled. (Tr. 20-21).
On October 26, 2017, Mr. A. appealed the ALJ’s decision
to the Social Security Administration’s Appeals
Council. (Tr. 205-07). On May 24, 2018, the Appeals Council
denied Mr. A.’s request to review the ALJ’s
decision (Tr. 1-7), thereby rendering the ALJ’s
decision the Commissioner’s final administrative
decision for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. §
416.1481 (explaining the effect of an Appeals Council
U.S.C. § 405(g) provides for judicial review of a final
decision of the Commissioner. The Court reviews the
Commissioner’s decision to determine whether the record
as a whole contains substantial evidence in support of the
Commissioner’s factual findings and whether the
Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084
(10th Cir. 2007). The Commissioner’s findings shall
stand if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). In addition to a lack of substantial evidence, the
Court may reverse where the Commissioner uses the wrong legal
standards, or the Commissioner fails to demonstrate reliance
on the correct legal standards. See Glass v.
Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994);
Thomson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir.
1993); Andrade v. Sec’y of Health & Human
Servs., 985 F.2d 1045, 1047 (10th Cir. 1993). However,
the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute [its] own judgment for that of the agency.”
Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)
(internal quotations omitted).
The ALJ Erred in Formulating Mr. A.’s RFC When She
Failed to Address His Need for His Companion Animal
appeal, Mr. A. argues that the ALJ erred when she failed to
discuss his need for a companion animal when formulating his
RFC. (Pl. Op. Br. 12-16, ECF No. 23.) He specifically asserts
that the ALJ acknowledged his use of a companion animal but
erred when she failed to evaluate how his reliance on a
companion animal would affect his RFC. (Id. at 13.)
According to Mr. A., the ALJ’s failure to evaluate the
companion animal as one of his limitations constitutes clear
error, necessitating remand. (Id. at 13-16.)
Commissioner contends Mr. A. did not meet his burden to
establish an RFC limitation requiring the presence of a
support dog. (Def.’s Ans. Br. 9-10, ECF No. 25.)
Further, according to the Commissioner, even if the ALJ
should have discussed whether Mr. A. required a support dog,
the Court should not remand because Mr. A. suffered no harm
by the omission because no reasonable factfinder would have
found he required a support dog to work. (Id. at
challenges the Commissioner’s finding at step four of
the five-step sequential analysis where Mr. A. bears the
burden of proof. Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224
(10th Cir. 1989). A claimant’s residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) reflects the ability to do
physical, mental, and other work activities on a sustained
basis despite limitations from the claimant’s
impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545,
416.945. “In addition to discussing the evidence
supporting his decision, the ALJ must discuss the
uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well
as significantly probative evidence he rejects.”
Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1010 (10th Cir.
presented significant probative evidence to the ALJ to
support his need to have his dog at his side to alleviate his
anxiety as evidenced by a letter of accommodation issued by
his college authorizing the presence of the dog at school to
address a disability. (Tr. 301.) The ALJ in fact found that
Mr. A. could work, in part, because of his former performance
in school and noted the school granted him the accommodation
of bringing his companion animal to class. (Tr. 20.) The
medical record also contains progress notes evidencing Mr.
A.’s improvement due to the presence of his companion
animal. (Tr. 429, 859.) Further the ALJ observed the
interaction of the companion animal and Mr. A. at the
hearing, and Mr. A. testified that the animal was trained to
respond to his increasing anxiety levels. (Tr. 43.) The ALJ
never discusses whether Mr. A. needs his companion animal to
attain the level of RFC described or whether the RFC reflects
Ms. A.’s capacity without the companion animal. The
Court finds Mr. A. met his burden to place his need for his
companion animal at issue, and the ALJ erred when she failed
to explain her reasoning and conclusion as to his need for
his companion dog. See Santos v. Colvin, No.
3:12-cv-05827-KLS, 2013 WL 5176846, at *8 (W.D. Wash. Sept.
12, 2013) (remanding the case where significant probative
evidence suggests that claimant needed his service animal,
and the ALJ failed to consider whether the claimant’s
need for the service animal would limit his ability to work).
omission is not harmless because the Vocational Expert
testified that if Mr. A. needed the companion animal none of
the jobs identified by the ALJ’s decision would be
available to Mr. A. (Tr. 72, 24-25.) Thus, the Court finds
the ALJ’s failure to discuss Mr. A.’s need for a
companion animal does not constitute harmless error.
Accordingly, the Court REMANDS the case for further
proceedings for the ALJ to analyze whether Mr. A.’s
need for his companion animal affects the formulation of his
RFC and consequently the jobs that he can perform.
the Court remands on this ground, it does not address the