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Hallman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

June 5, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Christopher Bradley Hallman seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's denial of supplemental security insurance (SSI). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge. The Commissioner has answered and filed the Administrative Record, and both parties have briefed their respective positions. For the reasons stated below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the matter for further proceedings.

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff received SSI based on childhood disability until he turned eighteen years old. Administrative Record (AR), [Doc. No. 11], 11. At that time, Plaintiff was re-evaluated for disability under the rules for determining disability in adults. Id. On March 21, 2013, the State Agency determined on initial review that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of March 14, 2013. Id. The initial decision was upheld on reconsideration. Id.

         At Plaintiff's request, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a video hearing on June 25, 2014. AR 33-69. Plaintiff represented himself at the hearing. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 25, 2014, AR 11-25. On appeal, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR 1-5. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner and is the subject of this judicial review.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (explaining five-step sequential evaluation process); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The ALJ first determined Plaintiff had never engaged in substantial gainful activity. AR 13.

         At step two, the ALJ listed Plaintiff's severe impairments: pes planus; left leg instability due to prior injury; gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); intermittent explosive disorder; depressive disorder; and learning disorder. Id. Additionally, the ALJ found a history of asthma, eczema and seizures but determined these conditions were not severe because Plaintiff had had no recent exacerbations of asthma, had no skin rash or lesions, and was not taking medication for seizures. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found none of Plaintiff's impairments meets or medically equals any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 13-14. The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's pes planus and left leg instability under Listing 1.02 A, his GERD under Listing 5.00, and his mental disorders under Listings 12.02, 12.04, 12.06 and 12.08. AR 14.

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that since March 14, 2013, the claimant has had the residual functional capacity to lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for about 6 hours during an eight-hour workday and can stand and walk for at least 2 hours during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant is to avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, and poor ventilation, and hazards such as unprotected heights and heavy machinery. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine and repetitive tasks. The claimant can respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and usual work situations, but have no contact with the general public.

AR 15.

         At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE) in determining Plaintiff can perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy including small parts assembler, hand cutter, and cuff folder. AR 24. Thus, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation process.

         III. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (quotation omitted). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if other evidence in the record overwhelms it, or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it. Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (citations 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 does not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quotations and citations omitted).

         IV. Issues Presented for Judicial Review

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's RFC formulation, contending it does not precisely reflect Plaintiff's mental limitations from intermittent explosive disorder or his physical limitations from pes planus. Plaintiff further contends the ALJ erred in failing to consider Plaintiff's obesity in combination with other disorders.

         Plaintiff's challenge to the ALJ's mental RFC is dispositive and requires reversal and remand. The ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff has the ability to “respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and usual work situations, ” despite his mental impairments consisting in part of intermittent explosive disorder, is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. The two opinions in the record supporting the ALJ's mental RFC are from non-examining, State agency medical sources who based their opinions on limited medical evidence. Their opinions regarding the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairments do not constitute substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision because they are overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary.

         Because this error requires reversal and remand, the Court need not consider the ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's physical impairments, his failure to consider Plaintiff's obesity, or his determination ...

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