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Coulter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 21, 2017

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



         The claimant Johnny C. Coulter 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 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[.]” 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 August 16, 1964, and was forty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 39, 172). He completed the tenth grade, and has worked as a truck driver, welder, bricklayer helper, and concrete paving helper (Tr. 31, 187). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since November 2, 2010, due to seizures (Tr. 186).

         Procedural History

         On October 6, 2011, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. His application was denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated February 28, 2014 (Tr. 21-33). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ'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 had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), except that he was precluded from work at unprotected heights, around dangerous moving machinery, and moderate exposure to extreme temperatures, high humidity, loud noises, frequent vibrations, and concentrated fumes. Additionally, the ALJ limited the claimant to simple tasks with routine supervision (Tr. 26). 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., dry cleaner helper, automatic machine attendant, and press machine operator (Tr. 32).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the medical evidence with regard to the claimant's mental impairment, and the Court agrees. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is therefore reversed.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of seizure disorder, migraine headaches, amphetamine and cannabis abuse (in sustained remission per testimony), and illiteracy, as well as the nonsevere impairments of left ankle pain, right elbow pain, and neck and back pain (Tr. 23-24). At step three, the ALJ determined that the claimant's depression was a nonsevere impairment, finding that the claimant had mild restriction of activities of daily living, but moderate difficulties in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, but no episodes of decompensation (Tr. 25). The medical evidence relevant to this appeal reflects that the claimant was sent for a consultative mental examination, but that physician has since been discredited and his opinion was not part of the ALJ's decision. As such, the ALJ gave no weight to this decision, and ...

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