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Murray v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 28, 2017

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



         The claimant Darrell E. Murray 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 on February 8, 1962, and was fifty-two years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 150). He has at least an eighth grade education, [3]and has no past relevant work (Tr. 59). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since an amended onset date of March 15, 2012, due to back issues, arthritis, gout, problems with his thyroid, mental illness, and a nervous disorder (Tr. 167).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85, on April 12, 2012. The claimant's application was denied. ALJ Luke Liter conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated June 27, 2014 (Tr. 15-28). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's decision represents 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 had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work, i. e., he could lift ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally, and sit/stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday with occasional balancing, kneeling, stooping, crouching, and crawling (Tr. 20). The ALJ further found the claimant was unable to tolerate exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery parts (Tr. 20). The ALJ limited the claimant to simple and some complex tasks, defined as semi-skilled work with a specific vocational preparation of three to four (Tr. 20). The ALJ further limited the claimant to no contact with the public, and superficial contact, defined as brief and cursory, with co-workers and supervisors (Tr. 20). The ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled because there were jobs in the regional and national economies that he could perform, i. e., label coder, merchandise marker, and housekeeping/cleaner (Tr. 27-28).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred: (i) by failing to properly assess his RFC and finding that there was work he could perform, (ii) by improperly analyzing the medical and nonmedical source evidence, and (iii) by improperly assessing his credibility. The Court finds that the ALJ did err in determining the claimant's RFC, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed.

         The ALJ found that the claimant's major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, obesity, mild lumbar spine spurring, and mild acromioclavicular joint arthropathy were severe impairments, and that his history of a single seizure was non-severe (Tr. 17). The relevant medical record reveals the claimant presented to Dr. Larry Sumner on May 19, 2010, for, inter alia, shoulder and neck pain (Tr. 280). Dr. Sumner noted the claimant's right shoulder was tender to abduction with decreased range of motion and crepitus, and that he had decreased range of motion in his neck (Tr. 280). Dr. Sumner instructed the claimant to not use his right arm for a few weeks (Tr. 280). An x-ray of the claimant's lumbar spine taken July 25, 2012, was unremarkable except for mild endplate spurring (Tr. 263). An x-ray of the claimant's right shoulder taken the same day revealed mild acromioclavicular joint arthropathy (Tr. 263). The claimant next visited Dr. Sumner on August 14, 2012, for a follow-up appointment after he was treated at the Tahlequah City Hospital Emergency Department four days earlier for heat exhaustion and a seizure (Tr. 266-80). A CT scan of the claimant's brain performed on August 10, 2012, was normal (Tr. 274). Dr. Sumner diagnosed the claimant with seizure disorder, and recommended he not drive (Tr. 279). The claimant next sought treatment from Dr. Sumner on November 11, 2013, after he fell from a ladder (Tr. 345). The claimant reported back pain and weakness, but no arthritis, joint pain, joint swelling, muscle cramps, or stiffness (Tr. 345). Dr. Sumner diagnosed the claimant with a lumbar sprain and seizure disorder, and recommended the claimant refrain from heavy lifting (Tr. 346). At a follow-up appointment on ...

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