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Hall v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 17, 2017

RONALD L. HALL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STEVEN P. SHREDER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The claimant Ronald L. Hall 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 January 21, 1961, and was fifty-four years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 40, 141). He has an eleventh grade education, and has worked as a ranch hand, concrete laborer, machine shop production worker, and truck driver (Tr. 38, 46). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since June 1, 2013, due to cervical spinal stenosis, and problems with his lower back, right hip, legs, and knees (Tr. 141, 163).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, on September 9, 2013, and for supplemental security insurance payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85 on April 4, 2014 (Tr. 141-50). The claimant's applications were denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing, and in a decision dated March 12, 2015, found that the claimant was not disabled prior to January 22, 2015, but became disabled on that date, and continued to be disabled through the date of his decision (Tr. 21-29). On November 17, 2015, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision, and determined that the claimant was not disabled through March 12, 2015 (Tr. 4-8). The Appeals Council's decision represents the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Decisions of the Administrative Law Judge and Appeals Council

         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 a limited range of light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), i. e., he could occasionally lift and/or carry twenty pounds; frequently lift and/or carry ten pounds; sit/stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; could frequently, but not constantly, handle and finger bilaterally; could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, couch, and crawl; and could never reach overhead, or climb ladders or scaffolding (Tr. 24). Additionally, the ALJ found the claimant required a sit/stand option defined as a temporary change in position from sitting to standing and vice versa without leaving the work station (Tr. 24). The ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled before January 22, 2015, because there were jobs in the national economy that he could perform, i. e., small product assembler, electrical accessory assembler, and inspector packager (Tr. 27-28). The ALJ then applied Medical-Vocational (“Grid”) Rule 202.02 and found the claimant disabled as of January 22, 2015 (Tr. 28-29).

         The Appeals Council found that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's findings with respect to the claimant's impairments and RFC, but that the ALJ made an error of law at step five by applying Grid Rule 202.02 to find the claimant disabled as of January 22, 2015 (Tr. 4-8). The Appeals Council determined that the claimant was fifty-four years old as of January 22, 2015 (the disability onset date), and as a result, was in the “closely approaching advanced age” category rather than the “advanced age” category the ALJ used (Tr. 5). The Appeals Council also found that a borderline age situation did not exist since the clamant was not within a few days to a few months of reaching the older age category as of the onset date (Tr. 5). Accordingly, the Appeals Council applied Grid Rule 202.11 and concluded that the claimant was not disabled from the alleged onset date of June 1, 2013, through March 12, 2015 (Tr. 6-7).

         Review

         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion of treating physician Dr. Richard Helton. The Court agrees, and the ...


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