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Potts v. Berrhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 22, 2017

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



         The claimant Ray D. Potts requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he 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 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[.]” 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 on June 11, 1970, and was forty-four years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 235). He has a high school education, and has worked as a meter reader and municipal worker (Tr. 64-65, 259). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since April 11, 2011, due to a left ankle injury, chronic ankle pain, knee pain, and stiffness and tendonitis in his hands (Tr. 235, 258).

         Procedural History

         On September 6, 2011, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 235-36). His application was denied. ALJ Edmund Were conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated May 9, 2013 (Tr. 113-22). The Appeals Council remanded the case on June 11, 2014 (Tr. 127-29). On remand, ALJ Edmund Were conducted another administrative hearing and again found that the clamant was not disabled in a written opinion dated May 13, 2015 (Tr. 17-38). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's May 2015 written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         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 a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), i. e., he could lift/carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally; sit/stand/walk six hours out of an eight-hour workday; frequently handle, finger, or feel bilaterally; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and never be exposed to temperature extremes, humidity extremes, or wetness (Tr. 24). The ALJ then concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work in the national economy he could perform, e. g., counter clerk, conveyor line bakery worker, call out operator, and semiconductor bonder (Tr. 37).


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

         The ALJ found that the claimant's degenerative joint disease in the left ankle, osteoarthritis right knee post ACL repair, and degenerative changes at the first carpometacarpal joints and old healed right fifth metacarpal fracture were severe impairments, but that his alleged anxiety and depression were non-severe (Tr. 21). The medical evidence relevant to this appeal reveals that the claimant underwent arthroscopic debridement with resection of small tibial osteophytes on his left ankle in October 2000 (Tr. 462-63). Dr. Watts released the ...

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