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Prince v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 11, 2017

SUSAN GAIL PRINCE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.[1]

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CHARLES B. GOODWIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Susan Gail Prince 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 (“SSA”) denying Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. No. 15. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 13, hereinafter “R. ”), and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the matter for further proceedings.[2]

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed her applications for DIB and SSI on June 17, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of September 10, 2010, and alleging disability based on degenerative disc disease, retinitis pigmentosa, [3] and arthritis. R. 124-35, 147-53, 154-57. Following denial of Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing. R. 25-52, 53-67, 70-75. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 27, 2014. R. 11-20. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-5; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. This action for judicial review followed.

         ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         As relevant here, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for disability benefits. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 10, 2010, the alleged onset date. R. 13. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of chronic lumbago, degenerative disc disease, and obesity. R. 13-14. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 14-15.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her impairments. R. 15-18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work subject to additional limitations:

The claimant is able to lift and/or carry, and push and/or pull, twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She is able to stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant is able to perform work requiring occasional stooping. She is able to perform work requiring frequent climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She is able to perform work requiring frequent balancing, kneeling, crouching and crawling. The claimant is afflicted with symptomatology from a variety of sources that would include mild to moderate occasional chronic pain that would be of sufficient severity as to be noticeable to her, but nonetheless she is able to remain attentive and responsive in a work setting. Appropriate use of her medications does not preclude her from remaining reasonably alert for required work functions.

         R. 15; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) (defining “light work”), 416.967(b) (same). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a medication technician as it was actually performed. R. 18-19.

         The ALJ continued to step five and considered in the alternative whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of her age, education, work experience, and RFC-could perform. Taking into consideration the hearing testimony of a vocational expert regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled light occupational base caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, the ALJ made the alternative findings that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as laundry sorter, mailroom clerk, and marker, all of which offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 19. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 10, 2010, through the date of the decision. R. 20.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether correct legal standards were applied. 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) (internal quotation marks 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, ” including any evidence “that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings, ” “to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (internal quotation marks omitted). While a reviewing court considers whether the Commissioner followed 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).

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff presents two broad challenges: (1) the ALJ's RFC determination was legally flawed and not supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the ALJ's credibility analysis was legally flawed and not supported by substantial evidence. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 20) at 12-24. The Court finds the first claim of error persuasive and, for the reasons set forth below, reverses and remands the decision of the Commissioner.

         A. Plaintiff's Vision Impairment

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider her vision problems. See Pl.'s Br. at 18-19. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on the basis of degenerative disc disease, retinitis pigmentosa, and arthritis.[4] R. 147. Plaintiff reported the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa to the SSA consultative examiners. See R. 218, 236. Plaintiff also complained that her vision was worsening and that she had difficulty reading. See R. 166, 218. At her SSA interview, the interviewer noted that Plaintiff had difficulties both reading and seeing, and consultative examiner Dr. Brad Liston recorded her best corrected vision as 20/50 bilaterally and in the right eye and 20/100 in the left eye. R. 156, 218. The ALJ, however, did not discuss Plaintiff's alleged vision impairment.[5]

         Given that Plaintiff's past relevant work requires reading and frequent near visual acuity, and two of the three alternative step-five jobs require frequent near visual acuity (with the third requiring it occasionally), the ALJ's disregard of this impairment requires reversal. See Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1438-40 (10th Cir. 1994) (reversing when the ALJ mentioned plaintiff's vision loss when summarizing the medical evidence but did not discuss how that loss impacted plaintiff's ability to do work); see also Dictionary of Occupational Titles (4th rev. ed. 1991) §§ 355.374-014 (certified medication technician), 1991 WL 672938; id. 361.687-014 (laundry sorter), 1991 WL 672991; id. 209.687-026 (mailroom clerk), 1991 WL 671813; id. 920.687-126 (marker), 1991 WL 687992. On remand, the ALJ should consider Plaintiff's vision problems and whether they affect the RFC evaluation and the related findings at steps four and five.

         B. Plaintiff's Back and Leg Pain

         Citing evidence of her back and leg pain, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff could stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday. Pl.'s Br. at 18. As noted by Plaintiff, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and set forth specific findings regarding the limitations caused by her back and leg pain. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's review was incomplete, however, because it “wholly overlooked or dismissed without adequate explanation a considerable amount of evidence that undermined the ALJ's reasons for his RFC assessment and the conclusion that she could stand and/or walk for six out of eight hours a day.” Pl.'s Br. at 18. Relatedly, ...


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