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Wells v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 21, 2017

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



         The claimant Sherran J. Wells requests judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act. She appeals the decision of the Commissioner and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner 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 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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 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]

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's review is limited to two inquiries: 1) whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence, and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997) [citation omitted]. The term “substantial evidence” requires “‘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). However, the Court may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion for that of the agency. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, 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 Mach 4, 1965, and was forty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 34, 217). She completed the ninth grade and attended special education classes, and has previously worked as a certified nursing assistant (Tr. 26, 244). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since January 17, 2009, due to back pain, headaches, depression, and anxiety (Tr. 244).

         Procedural History

         On December 10, 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Her applications were denied. ALJ James Bentley held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated February 19, 2014 (Tr. 17-28). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written decision represents the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 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 retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that she was limited to simple tasks with routine supervision, could not perform repetitive bending or stooping, required a sit/stand option defined as a temporary change in position from sitting to standing and vice versa with no more than one change in position every half hour without leaving the workstation, and was limited to occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public (Tr. 23). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not perform her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform, i. e., final assembler, document preparer, and table worker (Tr. 26-27).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to use correct legal standards to evaluate the evidence, namely two consultative examinations regarding the claimant's physical ability and mental status. The Court agrees, and the decision of the ALJ should be reversed and remanded.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of chronic back pain, depression, and anxiety (Tr. 19). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant experienced an on-the-job back injury on January 17, 2009, which led to an L5-S1 laminectomy with L5-S1 discectomy with bilateral lateral fusion L5-S1, with right iliac crest bone graft, posterior lumbar interbody fusion with allograft bone and Legacy posterior spinal instrumentation on January 5, 2010 (Tr. 461-462). Notes from her surgeon prior to the January 5, 2010 procedure state that there is a chance the claimant will remain symptomatic from the other disk levels and she could require hardware removal down the road, and a subsequent hardware removal did occur on February 22, 2011 (Tr. 461-464). Following these procedures, the claimant continued to report pain and difficulty with movement, and was sent to both land and aquatic physical therapy. Reports from physical therapy indicate that the claimant's pain was not greatly reduced, and that she continued to report falls (Tr. 379-428). Notes from the claimant's surgeon indicate that on September 9, 2011, he did not believe he could do anything else for her and that she subjectively had not done well following the ...

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