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Evans 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 Susan Annette Evans 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 June 30, 1963, and was fifty years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 44). She has a master's degree in counseling, and has worked as a caseworker, therapist, and mental retardation aide (Tr. 47, 68). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since August 4, 2011, due to migraine headaches, back problems, hypertension, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, anxiety, arthritis, degenerative scoliosis, an enlarged heart, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dizziness, sleep apnea, pain and numbness in her hands and feet, and shortness of breath (Tr. 179).

         Procedural History

         On November 30, 2011, 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 Bernard Porter conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated March 24, 2014 (Tr. 18-34). 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. §§ 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”) perform a limited range of light work, i. e., she could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; could sit/stand/walk for six hours each during an eight-hour workday; could frequently handle, finger, feel, balance, stoop, and crouch; could occasionally kneel, use hand and foot controls, and climb ramps or stairs; but could never crawl, climb ladders or scaffolds, work at unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts, or work in environments with temperature extremes or exposure to dust, fumes, and gasses (Tr. 24). The ALJ also found the claimant required a sit/stand option allowing for a change in position at least every thirty minutes (Tr. 24). The ALJ further found the claimant could perform simple tasks and simple work related decisions with no interaction with the general public (Tr. 24). Due to episodic symptomology, the ALJ also found the claimant would be off task up to five percent of the workday (Tr. 240). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work that she could perform in the national economy, e. g., inspector packer, small product assembler, and electrical accessory assembler (Tr. 32-33).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to: (i) adequately account for her moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace; and (ii) properly evaluate the opinion of Dr. Everett Bayne. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in analyzing Dr. Bayne's opinion, 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 hypertension, lumbar disc disease, migraine headaches, degenerative scoliosis, early chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, major obstructive sleep apnea, history of polysubstance abuse, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (Tr. 20). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant received inpatient mental health care on two separate occasions, and subsequently required ongoing medication management (Tr. 420-40, 61, 575-92). The claimant was first hospitalized at Rolling Hills Hospital from August 4, 2011, through August 22, 2011, due to depression, suicidal ideation, and hallucinations (Tr. 430-34). The claimant's treatment consisted of medication management as well as group and individual therapy (Tr. 431-33). At discharge, Dr. Bayne noted the claimant's hands were trembling, and that she had no suicidal ideations or intent (Tr. 433). He diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, mixed, with psychosis, and anxiety disorder (Tr. 433). The claimant was next treated at Rolling Hills Hospital from September 9, 2011, through October 3, 2011, after police discovered her “wandering around town half naked.” (Tr. 420-24). Upon admission, Dr. Bayne noted the claimant was confused, forgetful, and distracted; had delusions; and that her immediate recall and recent and remote memory were poor (Tr. 421). During ...

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