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Stevens v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 22, 2017

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



         The claimant Korie Elizabeth Stevens requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and the case is REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         Social Security Law and Standard of Review

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act “only if h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” Id. § 423 (d)(2)(A). Social security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[2]

         Section 405(g) limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938); see also Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). But the Court must review the record as a whole, and “[t]he substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01.

         Claimant's Background

         The claimant was born April 5, 1975, and was thirty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 59, 228, 232). She has a high school education and three years of college, and has previously worked as a pharmacy technician (Tr. 75, 83-84, 250). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since February 16, 2010, due to degenerative disc disease, panic attacks, osteoarthritis, diabetes, gout, dysthymic depression, fibromyalgia, lack of cartilage in her knees, tennis elbow, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 249).

         Procedural History

         On May 29, 2013, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and on June 18, 2013, she applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Her applications were denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated February 10, 2015 (Tr. 33-47). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), except that she was limited to semiskilled work (work which requires understanding, remembering, and carrying out some detailed skills, but does not require doing more complex work duties) where interpersonal contact with supervisors and coworkers is on a superficial work basis, contact with the public is occasional, and where there are only occasional changes in the workplace (Tr. 38). Additionally, the ALJ found that the claimant could attend and concentrate for extended periods with normal work breaks (Tr. 38). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform, i. e., janitor and laundry worker I (Tr. 46).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion of treating physician Dr. Carol Gambrill. The Court agrees, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of morbid obesity, diabetes mellitus, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the knees, depression, and anxiety, but that her alleged fibromyalgia, gout, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, migraine headaches, and asthma were non-severe (Tr. 35-36). The relevant medical records as to the claimant's physical impairments reveal that she established care with orthopedist Dr. Chad Crawley on January 3, 2011 (Tr. 351-55). At this initial appointment, Dr. Crawley noted the claimant weighed over 350 pounds, had an antalgic gait pattern, and had decreased range of motion in her lumbar spine (Tr. 351). He also noted she had good range of motion in her knees (“almost hyperextension”), and no evidence of instability, but experienced pain along the medial joint line of both knees (Tr. 351). Dr. Crawley diagnosed the claimant with moderate osteoarthritis in her knees and a possible medial meniscus tear in her right knee (Tr. 351). An MRI of the claimant's right knee conducted on January 7, 2011, revealed maceration of the medial margin of the medial meniscus, edema of the medial collateral ligament, a small joint effusion, and an injury or degenerative change in both the medial epicondylar region and the medial tibial plateau region (Tr. 360). Thereafter, Dr. Crawley administered corticosteroid injections in the claimant's right knee in January 2011, September 2011, October 2012, and June 2014, and in both knees in March 2012, March 2013, and October 2013 (Tr. 340, 345, 349, 479-80, 482-83). Additionally, Dr. Crawley administered a series of three viscosupplement injections in the claimant's right knee in October 2011 (Tr. 341-43). A whole body bone scan performed on November 11, 2012, revealed a likely degenerative or stress related right knee injury, but no spinal abnormalities (Tr. 373). In a treatment note dated March 15, 2013, Dr. Crawley indicated an x-ray of the claimant's right knee taken that day revealed severe varus deformity with bone on bone contact in the medial department, lateral psuedosubluxation of the tibial plateau, advanced arthritic changes at the ...

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