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Fritz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 22, 2017

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



         Plaintiff, Merrill Fritz, Jr., seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. For the reasons discussed below, the Court holds that the decision of the Commissioner be REVERSED AND REMANDED.

         I. 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 Act 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see, e.g., Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Step One requires the claimant to establish that she is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. Step Two requires that the claimant establish that she has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit her ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At Step Three, the claimant's impairments are compared with certain impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1 (“Listings”). A claimant suffering from a listed impairment or impairments “medically equivalent” to a listed impairment is determined to be disabled without further inquiry. If not, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) proceeds to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. At Step Four, the claimant must establish that he does not retain the RFC to perform his past relevant work, if any. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant's Step Four burden is met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at Step Five that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant, taking into account his age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966. Disability benefits are denied if the Commissioner meets this burden at Step Five. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope to two inquiries: first, whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence; and, second, whether the correct legal standards were applied. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quotation and citation omitted). Although the court will not reweigh the evidence, the court will “meticulously examine 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.” Id.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff, then a fifty-three-year-old male, filed his application for Title II benefits on August 1, 2014. (R. 129-32). He alleged a disability onset date of January 3, 2014. (R. 129). He alleged that he is disabled due to depression, severe anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and GERD. (R. 161). Plaintiff's claims for benefits were denied initially on September 25, 2014, and on reconsideration on December 2, 2014. (R. 53-80, 83-87, 89-91). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ held a hearing on October 23, 2015. (R. 29-50). The ALJ issued a decision on December 2, 2015, denying benefits and finding plaintiff not disabled because he was able to perform other work. (R. 13-28). The Appeals Council denied review, and plaintiff appealed. (R. 1-6; dkt. 2).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff was insured through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of January 3, 2014. (R. 18). The ALJ found at Step Two that plaintiff had severe impairments of “hearing loss, anxiety, and depression.” Id. His alleged impairments of sleep apnea and hypertension “do not support findings of severity, ” and plaintiff testified that although he was overweight, the excess weight did not cause any limitations. (R. 18-19). Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal a listing. (R. 19). In assessing the severity of his anxiety and depression, the ALJ reviewed those impairments using the “paragraph B” criteria and determined that plaintiff had moderate limitations in the areas of activities of daily living; social functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 19-20). Plaintiff had not experienced any episodes of decompensation. (R. 20).

         The ALJ then discussed plaintiff's testimony, a third-party function report from plaintiff's wife, and the opinions and treatment notes from plaintiff's treating physician and licensed social worker at the VA. (R. 21-23). Based on this evidence, the ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels with the following limitations: “He must avoid loud or continuous noise in a workplace or workplaces with hazards such as heights, opening [sic] machinery or moving vehicles. He is limited to simple, repetitive tasks. He is able to relate to supervisors and co-workers only superficially. He cannot work with the public.” (R. 20).

         Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as an “industrial maintenance repairer” because it was skilled work with an SVP of 8. (R. 23). However, based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform other work, such as a janitor or hand packager. (R. 24). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled. Id.

         III. Analysis

         On appeal, plaintiff argues (1) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence; and (2) that the ALJ's credibility findings are not supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Medical ...

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