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Pearson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 27, 2017

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



         The claimant Amy Suzanne Pearson requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and the case 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 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[.]” 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 16, 1976, and was thirty-seven years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 231). She has a high school education, some college, and vocational training in nail technology, and has no past work (Tr. 108, 122-23). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since June 2, 2009, due to bipolar disorder (Tr. 231, 249).

         Procedural History

         On January 17, 2013, the claimant filed an application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Her application was denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated March 17, 2014 (Tr. 95-110). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 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”) perform a limited range of light work, i. e., she could lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for six hours total during an eight-hour workday; sit for six hours total during an eight-hour workday; perform simple tasks with routine supervision; could have occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors; and could have no work related contact with the public (Tr. 102). Since the claimant could perform light work, the ALJ found she could also perform sedentary work (Tr. 102). The ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled because there was work that she could perform in the national economy, e. g., small products assembler, inspector packer, and motel inspector (Tr. 108-09).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) analyze her substance abuse, (ii) evaluate the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Kathleen Ward, (iii) consider the side effects of her medication, and (iv) analyze her various Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores. The Court finds the claimant's first and second contentions persuasive, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, paranoid type schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, methamphetamine abuse in remission by report, cannabis abuse, hepatitis C, obesity, and subjective complaints of idiopathic peripheral autonomic neuropathy and low back pain (Tr. 97-100). The medical record as to the claimant's mental impairments reveals that she was admitted to the Carl Albert Community Mental Health Center (“CACMHC”) under emergency detention on July 16, 2011, after police discovered her walking in the middle of the road without shoes on, yelling for water, and throwing her mail on the ground (Tr. 394-410). Nurse practitioner Cindy Baugh conducted a psychiatric assessment at admission, and noted the claimant was alert but disoriented, angry, hostile, unkempt, disheveled, and combative towards police (Tr. 399). She did not answer any questions and her judgment was grossly impaired (Tr. 399). The claimant admitted to using methamphetamine on the day of admission, and reported to Dr. Theresa Farrow that her drug use had a lot to do with why she was admitted for inpatient treatment (Tr. 404). After the claimant was stabilized with medication, Dr. Farrow discharged her on July 26, 2011, with diagnoses of bipolar disorder, mixed, severe, with psychotic feature; panic disorder with agoraphobia; cannabis abuse; and a GAF score of forty-two ...

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