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Smith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 17, 2017

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



         The claimant Lee E. Rushing 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). He appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby 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 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[.]” 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 on October 26, 1964, and was forty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 44). He has a high school education and vocational training in welding, and has worked as a forklift driver and infantryman (Tr. 44-45, 70-71). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since August 11, 2009, due to posttraumatic stress disorder and peripheral neuropathy (Tr. 49, 267).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, on March 30, 2012 (Tr. 233-34). The claimant's application was denied. ALJ Edward L. Thompson conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated March 17, 2014 (Tr. 19-34). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's decision 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 steps four and five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of medium work, i. e., he could occasionally lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) fifty pounds; frequently lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) twenty-five pounds; sit/stand/walk (with normal breaks) for a total of six hours each in an eight-hour workday; and occasionally reach overhead bilaterally, crawl, and climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds (Tr. 27-28). Additionally, the ALJ found the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple and some complex work tasks for a sustained period of time, at an appropriate pace, with only limited contact with the general public (Tr. 28). The ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled because he could return to his past relevant work as a forklift driver, and alternatively because there were other jobs in the national economy that he could perform, i. e., hand packager, salvage laborer, housekeeping cleaner, extrusion press operator, and label coder (Tr. 32-34).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to: (i) properly evaluate the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Shalom Palacio-Holman, and (ii) account for his peripheral neuropathy in determining his RFC. The Court finds both contentions persuasive, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of peripheral neuropathy, lower extremities, mild to moderate, mixed sensory motor axonal degenerating in type, distal more than proximal; degenerative joint disease, bilateral shoulders; affective disorder; anxiety-related disorder; alcohol abuse; and a substance abuse disorder (Tr. 21). The record reveals the claimant was largely treated at the Jack C. Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center (“VAMC”) by nurse ...

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