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Lyons v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 21, 2017

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



         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR. ___). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative development.


         Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income was denied initially and on reconsideration. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 92-99). The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and remanded for further administrative findings. (TR. 106-107). After a second hearing, the same ALJ issued another unfavorable decision. (TR. 15-28). Subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the second decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 20, 2010, the application date. (TR. 18). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Lyons had the following severe impairments: a mood disorder, an affective disorder, diabetes, and status post callouses to the feet. (TR. 18). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 19).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (TR. 26). The ALJ further concluded that Ms. Lyons had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant can have no contact with the general public. Further, the claimant can perform simple one-to-two step tasks. Moreover, the claimant cannot perform complex or detailed instructions. Additionally, the claimant can have no continued exposure to bright lights. Finally, the claimant can occasionally stoop and bend.

(TR. 22).

         Based on the finding that Ms. Lyons could not perform her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded to step five. There, the ALJ presented several limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 80-81). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 81-82). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Lyons was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 27-28).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ: (1) committed error at step two, (2) failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's obesity, (3) engaged in selective review of a consulting physician's opinion, and (4) failed to consider various impairments in assessing Plaintiff's RFC.[2]


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).


         Plaintiff alleges two errors at step two, but neither have merit. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Lyons suffered from severe impairments involving a mood disorder, an affective disorder, diabetes, and status post callouses to her feet. (TR. 18). The ALJ also made a specific finding that the following impairments were not severe: Plaintiff's peripheral neuropathy, status post right arm pain, hypertension, asthma, and obesity. (TR. 18). Ms. Lyons alleges that the ALJ employed a “flawed test” for severity and erred in concluding that the peripheral neuropathy, arm pain, hypertension, and asthma were not severe. [3] (ECF No. 16:4-11). Plaintiff goes on to then cite evidence which she believes would support a finding that the non-severe impairments were, in fact, severe. (ECF No. 16:4-11). But the Court need not address Plaintiff's allegations because the ALJ found other severe impairments and proceeded to the remaining steps of the disability evaluation. See Brescia v. Astrue, 287 F. App'x 626, 629 (10th Cir. 2008) (“Once an ALJ has found that a claimant has at least one severe impairment, a failure to designate another disorder as ‘severe' at step two does not constitute reversible error. . .”).

         Next, citing Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061 (10th Cir. 2003), Ms. Lyons argues that the ALJ's step two findings were inadequate. (ECF No. 16:18-20). But her reliance on Wells is misplaced.

         In Wells, the ALJ had made a step-two finding that the plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe. Wells, 727 F.3d at 1068. The ALJ then stated: “[t]hese findings do not result in further limitations in work-related functions in the [RFC] below.” Id. at 1069 (brackets in original). The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that the ALJ's language “suggest[ed]” that he may have relied on his step-two findings to conclude that the plaintiff had no limitations at step four based on mental impairments. Id. at 1069. If so, the Court stated, such a conclusion would be considered “inadequate under the regulations” because the RFC analysis at step four required “a more detailed assessment” “describing how the evidence support[ed] each conclusion, citing specific medical facts.” Id. (emphasis in original).

         Ms. Lyons contends that the ALJ erred at step two by making findings more egregious than the step two findings condemned in Wells. Plaintiff states: “Worse yet, in contrast to the step-two statement that Wells implied would be inadequate, at step two in Ms. Lyons's case the ALJ made no statement whatsoever regarding all severe or non-severe impairments in her RFC which is clearly error.” (ECF No. 16:20) (emphasis in original). This statement suggests that Plaintiff believes Wells requires some sort of finding at step two regarding ...

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