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Murray v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 12, 2017

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



         Plaintiff James Edward Murray 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, id. §§ 1381-1383f. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. No. 18. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 11, 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]


         Plaintiff protectively filed his applications for DIB and SSI on August 27, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of August 15, 2010, and alleging disability based on major depression, anxiety, social anxiety and isolation, and various physical conditions. R. 174-79, 180-83, 212-14, 302. Following denial of Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing. R. 75-124. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 11, 2013. R. 56-67. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-6; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. This action for judicial review followed.


         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); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 1520(a)(4), 416.920, 920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2010, the alleged onset date. R. 58; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571, 416.971. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: acquired hypothyroidism; high blood pressure, well controlled; obesity; and depression. R. 58-59; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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. 59-60; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of his impairments. R. 60-65; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work subject to the additional limitations that Plaintiff could:

sit for 6 hours; stand/walk for 2 hours; [have] no concentrated exposure to extreme heat; perform simple and some complex tasks with routine supervision; [have] no public contact; [perform] no customer service; . . . interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers for superficial work purposes; and . . . adapt to work situations.

R. 60; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) (defining “sedentary work”), 416.967(a) (same). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work and that transferability of job skills was not a material issue. R. 65; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, .1568, 416.965, .968.

         At step five, the ALJ considered whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of his 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 sedentary occupational base caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as tube operator, document preparer, and addresser, all of which offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 66; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(5)(ii), 416.945(a)(5)(ii). On this basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 15, 2010, through the date of the decision. R. 66; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).


         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).


          Plaintiff presents two issues on appeal: (1) whether the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence and is adequately explained, and (2) whether the ALJ failed to properly weigh Plaintiff's credibility. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 13) at 6, 16-20, 21-24. As to both issues, Plaintiff addresses evidence and testimony related to his mental impairments and not his physical impairments.

         A. Whether the ALJ Properly Weighed Plaintiff's Credibility

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's credibility analysis was legally flawed and the result unsupported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Br. at 21-24. Notably, at the time of the ALJ's decision, assessment of a claimant's subjective complaints was governed by Social Security Ruling 96-7p, but on March 16, 2016, the Commissioner adopted a superseding Ruling-Social Security Ruling 16-3p-that eliminated use of the term “credibility” and provided new guidance for evaluating the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of a claimant's symptoms. See SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029 (eff. Mar. 28, 2016). Without foreclosing the possibility that a proper ...

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