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Warrior 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 Jan Darlene Warrior 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 on March 9, 1958, and was fifty-seven years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 34). She has a high school education and vocational training in phlebotomy, and has worked as a seamstress (Tr. 35-36, 46). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since May 9, 2014, due to depression, high blood pressure, back pain, nerve pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis (Tr. 213).

         Procedural History

         On July 10, 2014, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85, on July 15, 2014 (Tr. 161-77). Her applications were denied. ALJ Larry D. Shepherd conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated March 1, 2016 (Tr. 14-24). 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 four 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), 416.967(b), i. e., she could lift/carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit/stand/walk for about six hours during an eight-hour workday; and occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and reach overhead (Tr. 19). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as a seamstress (Tr. 23-24).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) analyze the opinions of treating physician Dr. Osborn, (ii) weigh the opinions of the state agency physicians, (iii) analyze the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Buffington, and (iv) assess her RFC. The Court agrees with the claimant's first and third contentions, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found the claimant's obesity, degenerative disc disease, hypertension, generalized osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia were severe impairments, but that her depression was non-severe (Tr. 17). The medical evidence relevant to this appeal reveals that Dr. Osborn regularly treated the claimant between March 2013 and November 2015 (Tr. 326-48, 411-55). In March and April 2013, Dr. Osborn treated the claimant for depression, hypertension, neuropathy, and lumbar disc disease (Tr. 347-48). At the claimant's next follow-up appointment in April 2014, Dr. Osborn indicated the claimant was tender in all areas of her spine and in all of her joints, and he diagnosed her with osteoarthritis (Tr. 343-45). The claimant was involved in a motor vehicle accident on May 9, 2014, and CT scans of her abdomen and chest revealed subcutaneous contusions, while a CT scan of her cervical spine revealed shallow cervical lordosis with left curvature possibly representative of spasm, and mild spondylosis anteriorly and posteriorly at ¶ 5-6 (Tr. 332-41). In August 2014, the claimant reported that her low back was still significantly worse than before the accident, but “[e]verything else seems to be doing better.” (Tr. 411). Dr. Osborn again noted tenderness in all areas of her spine and in all of her joints, but his examination was otherwise normal (Tr. 412). At a follow-up appointment on October 28, 2014, the claimant reported pain in her arms and knees as well as significant back pain radiating into ...

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