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Old v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 22, 2017

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



         The claimant James David Old 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 April 4, 1965, and was forty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 40, 186). He completed three years of college, and has worked as a correctional officer, instructor, recruiter, and maintenance supervisor of firefighter equipment (Tr. 33). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since February 28, 2013, due to arthritis in his back, knees, hips, and shoulder; high blood pressure; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); being a carrier of Hepatitis C; asthma; and sleep apnea (Tr. 213).

         Procedural History

         On May 17, 2013, 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 held an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 24, 2015 (Tr. 22-35). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner 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 light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), i. e., except that he 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 twenty minutes and without leaving the work station so as not to diminish pace or productions. Additionally, the ALJ determined that the claimant could only perform occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; as well as frequent but not constant handling and fingering bilaterally; and that he was to avoid unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery, as well as exposure to concentrated dust, fumes, and poorly ventilated areas. Finally, the ALJ stated that the claimant could perform simple tasks with routine supervision, and that he could interact with others on a superficial basis (Tr. 27). 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, e. g., document preparer, touch-up screener, and semi-conductor bonder (Tr. 33-34).


         The claimant argues that the ALJ erred: (i) by failing to properly account for his Veterans Affairs (VA) disability rating, and (ii) that evidence submitted to the Appeals Council undermines the ALJ's determination. The Court agrees with the claimant's contentions, and the Commissioner's decision must therefore be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, arthritis of the knee and shoulders, sleep apnea, Hepatitis C, carpal tunnel syndrome, major depressive disorder, PTSD, and recently reported episodes of syncope of unknown etiology (Tr. 24). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant received most of his treatment through Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities, but he was also treated at the Warren Clinic. With regard to his treatment at the VA, the claimant was given upon discharge a 100% service-connected disability rating based on limited motion of the arm (20%), limited extension of thigh (10%), limited flexion of knee (10%), degenerative arthritis of the spine (10%), PTSD (30%), hemorrhoids (20%), migraine headaches (30%), sleep apnea syndrome (50%), tinnitus (10%), limited extension of thigh (10%), limited flexion of knee (10%), knee condition (10%), hiatal hernia (10%), and sinusitis, maxillary, chronic (10%), as ...

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