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Swearengin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 2, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         The claimant Robert Wayne Swearengin requests judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act. He appeals the decision of the Commissioner and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is hereby REVERSED and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         Social Security Law and Standard of Review

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(2)(A). Social security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[2]

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's review is limited to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence, and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997) [citation omitted]. The term “substantial evidence” requires “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). However, the Court may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion for that of the agency. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, the Court must review the record as a whole, and “[t]he substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01.

         Claimant's Background

         The claimant was born on December 9, 1965, and was forty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 33, 169). He completed twelfth grade, and has worked as a vending machine servicer (Tr. 20, 187). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since October 26, 2012, due to a stroke and walking problems (Tr. 186).

         Procedural History

         On February 20, 2013, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. His applications were denied. ALJ James Bentley held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated March 17, 2014 (Tr. 10-24). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written decision represents the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.697(b), i. e., he could lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and stand/walk and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and that he could frequently, but not constantly, handle and finger bilaterally. The ALJ further restricted the claimant from hazards such as heights or machinery, and stated that the claimant was able to avoid ordinary hazards in the workplace such as boxes on the floor, doors left ajar, or approaching people or vehicles. Additionally, the ALJ found he needed a sit/stand option, defined as a temporary change in position from sitting to standing and vice versa with no more than one change in position every twenty minutes and without leaving the workstation so as not to diminish pace or production. Finally, the ALJ limited the claimant to occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public (Tr. 15). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform, i. e., small products assembler, conveyor line bakery worker, and parking-lot attendant (Tr. 20-21).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) improperly weighing his subjective symptoms and (ii) failing to account for his nonsevere impairment of insomnia in formulating the RFC. The Court agrees with the claimant's first contention.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of hypertension, status post cerebrovascular accident with mild facial droop, obesity, and history of tobacco, cannabis, and intravenous methamphetamine abuse, as well as nonsevere impairments of anxiety and insomnia (Tr. 12). The medical evidence reflects that the claimant had a stroke and was admitted to the hospital on October 29, 2012 (Tr. 272). He was discharged as medically stable with improved left-sided weakness (Tr. 272-273). An MRI of the brain revealed acute/subacute hemorrhage in the right thalamus and ...

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