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Salmond v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 18, 2018

RONALD SALMOND, SR., Plaintiff - Appellant,

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before BARKSDALE, DENNIS, and ELROD, Circuit Judges.


         Ronald Salmond applied for, and was denied, social security benefits. The district court affirmed the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Because the Administrative Law Judge's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, we reverse and remand to the district court with instructions that this case be sent back to the administrative level for additional proceedings.


         Ronald Salmond is a former physician and army veteran. He served on active duty for over ten years until he was honorably discharged. Salmond reports that, during his military service, he treated gruesome injuries, such as missing limbs and severe burns, and retrieved the remains of deceased service members.

         After his military service, Salmond went into private practice. In both 1995 and 1997, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Even so, Salmond maintained his medical practice until 2006 when, he says, his life took a turn for the worse. His divorce was finalized. His wife obtained a restraining order against him, so he did not have access to his financial assets. Because of his mental state, he stopped seeing patients, and hospitals revoked his medical privileges. His medical license and board certifications were also suspended.

         In 2006, Salmond entered a Veterans Affairs residential treatment program until he was involuntarily discharged for failing to report to bed checks. He returned to the VA treatment program in 2009. While on medication for depression, he worked as an administrator at an assisted living facility for a few months. Eventually, Salmond was discharged from the treatment program when Salmond failed to report for work and bed checks (and subsequent attempts to contact him were unsuccessful).

         In October 2011, he sought mental health treatment again. He began to see Dr. Norris Purcell, a psychiatrist employed by the VA. Salmond met with Dr. Purcell repeatedly over the next two years. In 2013, two VA doctors examined Salmond to determine his eligibility for VA benefits. The VA ultimately determined that Salmond had a 70% disability rating due to his PTSD, depression, and bipolar disorder with a 100% total disability individual unemployability rating. This rating signified that he was unable to secure or follow a substantial gainful occupation as a result of his service-related medical condition. As a result, the VA granted Salmond benefits.

         Around the same time, the Social Security Administration evaluated Salmond to determine his eligibility for social security benefits. Its doctors indicated that his mental health condition limited his ability to work. Salmond applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. After the Social Security Administration denied his applications, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. The ALJ conducted a video hearing, and only Salmond testified. At the end of the hearing, the ALJ ordered Salmond to undergo a psychological evaluation and arranged for a Social Security Administration psychologist to examine him. The psychologist determined that Salmond did not have the ability to "[r]espond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting and to changes in a routine work setting."

         In January 2015, the ALJ issued an order denying benefits. He found that Salmond suffered from PTSD, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, REM dissociative disorder, type 2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, benign postratic hypertrophy, hypertension, and obesity. He concluded that while Salmond's impairments "continue to cause symptoms, " these symptoms were "mild" and did not cause "work-related limitations." The ALJ relied on Dr. Purcell's treatment notes, Salmond's ability to perform basic daily tasks, and the two-year gap in treatment and determined that Salmond's own testimony about his condition was "not entirely credible." Recognizing that an impairment is not severe if it is only "a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work irrespective of age, education, or work experience, " the ALJ determined that Salmond did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.

         Salmond appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council and supplemented the administrative record with a report written by Dr. Purcell in February 2015. In his report, Dr. Purcell reported that Salmond had a substantial or complete loss to perform many activities associated with regular employment. On this supplemented record, the Appeals Council denied Salmond's request for review, rendering the ALJ's adverse decision final.

         Salmond then filed a complaint in federal district court, and his case was referred to a magistrate judge. Salmond filed a brief appealing the denial of his disability claim, and the Commissioner filed its own brief defending the ALJ's decision. In its "Findings, Conclusions and Recommendation, " the magistrate judge recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded. "After reviewing the parties' arguments, the ALJ decision, and the transcript, " it determined that "the ALJ's decision at Step Two as to Salmond's mental impairment is not supported by substantial evidence." The magistrate judge reasoned that even given Dr. Purcell's treatment notes, Dr. Purcell's report supported a finding that Salmond's impairments were severe. He explained that "every single medical opinion of record discussed by the ALJ confirmed that Salmond more than satisfied the de minimis standard at Step Two of having an impairment that at the very least, would be expected to minimally interfere with his ability to work."

         The district court did not accept the magistrate judge's recommendation. The day after the magistrate judge issued its "Findings, Conclusions and Recommendation, " the district court sua sponte ordered the Acting Commissioner of Social Security to file a response to the magistrate judge's findings, conclusions, and recommendation. The Commissioner filed a response, and Salmond filed a reply in support of the magistrate judge's recommendation. The district court rejected the magistrate judge's recommendation and concluded that the ALJ's finding was supported by substantial evidence. It said that "[t]he analysis conducted by the ALJ . . . is self-explanatory, and nothing would be gained by a detailed review of the analysis in this memorandum opinion." It was ...

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