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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

August 7, 2017

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


          Gerald B. Cohn, United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for decision. Plaintiff Jason Lamont Johnson (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's appeal and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision in this case.


         To receive disability or supplemental security benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”), a claimant bears the burden to demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (setting forth the five steps in detail). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1064 at n.1. (10th Cir. 2013). If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See id. Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court's review is based on the record, and the Court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the [Administrative Law Judge's] findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision stands. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).


         A. Procedural History

         In February 2013, Plaintiff protectively applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Tr. 238-39, 253-58). Plaintiff alleged disability as of October 27, 2011, due to a back injury, high blood pressure, and depression. (Tr. 238, 291). Following a hearing in July 2014 (Tr. 35-71), an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), concluded Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act in a decision dated December 16, 2014 (Tr. 19-28). The Appeals Council declined review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-6). This appeal followed.


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges two errors: (1) the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence of record; and (2) the ALJ committed reversible legal error by failing to discuss uncontroverted and / or significantly probative evidence that conflicted with her findings. (Pl. Br. at 6, Doc. 17).

         A. ALJ Evaluation of Medical Opinions

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by failing to evaluate every medical opinion in the record. (Pl. Br. at 6). In the decision, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's medical record.

As addressed in the prior decision, the claimant has a history of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post discectomy in 1991 and fusion in 2008; as well as a history of depression, cocaine dependence and marijuana abuse. The records of July 15, 2011, also reflect a diagnosis of hypertension “in good control, ” and “bursitis or rotator cuff tear on the left shoulder.” The claimant testified that since October 27, 2011, (the alleged onset date in this instant application) the claimant continues to suffer from pain; but has ceased his use of cocaine and marijuana. The claimant testified that he is unable to work due to pain …
On May 9, 2013, the claimant underwent a physical examination with Dr. Jerry D. First at the request of [the] State agency. By the date of his examination with Dr. First, the claimant had still not had his left shoulder evaluated. The claimant also complained of continued pain in his back (at the same intensity) since 2007. However, the claimant was notably “not currently taking any pain medications” with “no plans to do anything further, for his back.” Despite some observed limitation in his range of motion (particularly at his back), the claimant was able to walk down the 70-foot hallway without any difficulty or need of assistance. His gait was ...

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