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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

August 25, 2017

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



         Plaintiff, Karen Williams, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Administration's final decision finding she was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Commissioner has filed the Administrative Record (AR), and both parties have briefed their respective positions.[1] For the reasons stated below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the matter for further proceedings.

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI), alleging disability beginning November 2017. AR 191-99. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision dated June 25, 2015. AR 17-29. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 22, 2016. AR 1-7. Therefore, the ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011). Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial review. See Compl. [Doc. No. 1] (filed Jan. 4, 2017).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         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) (explaining process); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2016, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, November 17, 2012. AR 19.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; gout; diabetes mellitus; and affective disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. AR 20-22.

         The ALJ next determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). The ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform light work with additional physical and mental limitations. AR 22.[2]

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a Dietary Assistant; Dishwasher; Kitchen Helper; or Cafeteria Cook because that work requires an exertional level greater than the ALJ's RFC determination. AR 27-28. At step five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 28-29. The ALJ identified Bottling Line Attendant; Electrode Cleaner, Production Help; and Bakery Worker as representative occupations. AR 28-29. The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the terms of the Social Security Act. AR 29.

         III. Issue Presented for Judicial Review

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review raising two claims of error: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider medical source opinions; and (2) the ALJ's findings regarding Plaintiff's allegations about her symptoms is legally flawed and not supported by substantial evidence.[3]

         IV. 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 as a whole 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 it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record 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 in order 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).

         Plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps one through four of the sequential evaluation process to establish a prima facie case of disability. Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1064 n. 1 (10th Cir. 2013). If Plaintiff meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that Plaintiff retains a ...

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