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Smith 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 Beverly Ann Smith requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and the case 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 h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” Id. § 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]

         Section 405(g) limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “‘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); see also Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's. See Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Svcs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). But 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 December 4, 1971, and was forty-two years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 33, 125). She has a high school education, some college, and a certified nursing assistant license, and has no past relevant work (Tr. 37-38, 142). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since July 13, 1999, due to rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative bone disease, osteopenia, and chronic pain (Tr. 141).

         Procedural History

         On March 14, 2012, the claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Her application was denied. ALJ Bernard Porter conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 23, 2014 (Tr. 14-23). The Appeals Council denied review; thus, the ALJ's written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 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 had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), except that she was limited to frequent handling, fingering, feeling, balancing, stooping, crouching, and interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the public; occasional reaching overhead, climbing ramps and stairs, use of hand or foot controls, and kneeling; and could never climb ladders or scaffolds, crawl, work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery, or be exposed to temperature extremes (Tr. 20). Due to psychologically based symptoms, the ALJ also found the claimant could perform simple tasks and make simple work related decisions (Tr. 20). Due to episodic symptomology, the ALJ further found the claimant would be off task five percent of the workday (Tr. 20). Lastly, the ALJ found the claimant required a sit/stand option every thirty minutes (Tr. 20). The ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled because there was work she could perform in the national and regional economies, i. e., document preparer, touchup screener, and suture winder (Tr. 28).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to: (i) properly evaluate the medical evidence; (ii) perform a proper determination at steps four and five; and (iii) perform a proper credibility determination. The Court finds the claimant's third contention persuasive, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, reflux disease (“GERD”), migraine headaches, poly neuropathy, depression, anxiety disorder, obesity, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, ventral hernia, remote history of pelvic and femur fracture (in 1999), lumbar disc disease, degenerative joint disease of the hands and feet, and hypothyroidism (Tr. 18). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant regularly sought treatment from Dr. Paul Reel between March 2009 and December 2009, and again between January 2012 and April 2014 (Tr. 333-45, 350-63, 395-401, 425-29, 469-92). Her diagnoses relevant to her disability claim included diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, polyneuropathy, and polyarticular joint pain. Dr. Reel's treatment largely consisted of medication management, including pain medicines, immunosuppressants, and steroids. An MRI of the claimant's lumbar spine performed on March 28, 2012, revealed lumbar spondylosis with degenerative changes, and degenerative changes at ¶ 5-S1 (Tr. 300). At a follow-up appointment on June 5, 2012, the claimant reported involuntary muscle movements and slurred speech that began after a medication change (Tr. 355). She returned to her original medication, and by November 11, 2012, her symptoms had improved, but were not fully resolved (Tr. 350, 355). There are no further treatments notes ...

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