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Lee 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 Katherine Lee 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 set forth below, the undersigned Magistrate Judge RECOMMENDS that the Commissioner's decision be REVERSED and the case REMANDED to the ALJ 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. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 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 June 14, 1961, and was fifty-two years old at the time of the hearing (Tr. 33). She has up to two years of college education, and has worked as a mental retardation aide, groundskeeper, and purchasing order clerk (Tr. 20, 184). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since August 1, 2010 due to back problems (Tr. 184).

         Procedural History

         On May 11, 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Her application was denied. ALJ Bernard Porter held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated July 16, 2014 (Tr. 17-31). The Appeals Council denied review, so ALJ Porter's opinion represents the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         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 ability to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she was limited to occasionally using foot controls, overhead reaching, kneeling, and climbing ramps and stairs; never climbing ladders or scaffolds, or crawling; and frequently balancing, stooping, and crouching. Additionally, he found the claimant required a sit-stand option that allowed her to change position every thirty minutes, that she could never work around unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts, she could perform simple tasks and simple work-related decisions, and she could have no contact with the public and only occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors (Tr. 16). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform, e. g., small products assembler, electronics worker, and mail room clerk (Tr. 21).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) improperly evaluating her credibility, (ii) failing to properly assess her RFC, and (iii) failing to fully develop the record. The undersigned Magistrate Judge agrees with the claimant's first contention, and the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed.

         ALJ Porter determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of lumbar disc disease, cervical disc disease, heart palpitations, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, mild cognitive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Tr. 14). The claimant testified at the administrative hearing that she could not work because of her lower back, which she first hurt in November 2007 (Tr. 39-40). She had an epidural steroid injection but it provided no relief, and she stated that she keeps getting worse (Tr. 40-41). She testified that she takes over-the-counter pain medications daily (Tr. 43). She stated that sitting for over half an hour can make it difficult for her to stand up, and that there is nothing she can do to relieve the pain (Tr. 44). She testified that doctors had not recommended any sort of movement for her pain relief (Tr. 45). As to her mental impairments, she stated that she has high anxiety accompanied by a rapid heart rate, and that she ...

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