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Howard v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

July 7, 2017

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 applications for benefits 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 and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further administrative findings.


         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income initially and on reconsideration. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 14-20). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-4). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         In evaluating Plaintiff's claims of disability, 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. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 25, 2012, the alleged onset date. (TR. 16). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Howard had the following severe impairments: lumbar back pain and spinal stenosis. (TR. 16). 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. 17).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with occasional stooping, kneeling, and crouching.” (TR. 17). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a sales associate. (TR. 18). Even so, 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. 35-36). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). (TR. 36-37). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Howard was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 19-20).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges error: (1) in the evaluation of a mental impairment, (2) in the evaluation of a treating physician's opinion, and (3) in the credibility analysis.


         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).


         From August 16, 2013 to December 23, 2014, Dr. Juan Maldonado treated Plaintiff for back pain. (TR. 372-383, 390-404). As alleged by Ms. Howard, the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Dr. Maldonado's opinion.

         A. ALJ's Duty to Assess a Treating Physician's Opinion

         An ALJ must follow a particular analysis in evaluating a treating physician's opinion. First, the ALJ has to determine, then explain, whether the opinion is entitled to controlling weight. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004). An opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is “well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is consistent with the other substantial evidence in the record.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1331 (10th Cir. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “But if the ALJ decides that the treating physician's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, the ALJ must then consider whether the opinion should be rejected altogether or assigned some lesser weight.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In doing so, the ALJ must: (1) assess the opinion under a series of factors[2] and give “good reasons” for the weight assigned to the opinion. Id. at 1332. “The reasons must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the [ALJ] gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reason for that weight.” Id. If the ALJ rejects an opinion completely, he must give “specific, legitimate reasons” for doing so. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal citations omitted).

         B. Dr. Maldonado's Opinion

         On April 7, 2014, Dr. Maldonado completed a “Medical Opinion Regarding Residual Functional Capacity” where the physician documented Ms. Howard's physical impairment, including her various work-related abilities and limitations. (TR. 383). There, the physician stated that since 2012 Ms. Howard had been suffering low back pain caused by a herniated disc impinging on her left side. (TR. 383). With the impairment, Dr. Maldonado opined that Plaintiff had the ability to:

• stand and walk less than 2 hours during an 8-hour day,
• sit for 2 hours during an 8-hour day, and
• occasionally and/or frequently lift and/or carry less than 10 pounds.

         (TR. 383). Dr. Maldonado also stated that Ms. Howard's impairment: (1) was likely to interfere with her ability to maintain attention and concentrate for 25% or more of her workday and (2) would likely cause ...

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