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Anderson 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 Linda Kay Anderson 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 the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is hereby REVERSED and the case is REMANDED 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 February 15, 1956, and was fifty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 29, 144). She earned her GED, and has worked as a radio dispatcher, collection clerk, bartender, and correction officer (Tr. 23-24, 167). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since November 21, 2013, due to diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), scarring on her heart, and many other medical problems (Tr. 167).

         Procedural History

         On November 21, 2013, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Her application was denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II, conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated March 6, 2015 (Tr. 14-24). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's opinion represents 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 four of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), i. e., she could lift/carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally, stand/walk and sit each for six hours in an eight-hour workday, except that she could only frequently balance and stoop; only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds (Tr. 18). The ALJ thus concluded that the claimant could return to her past relevant work as a dispatcher and as a collection clerk (Tr. 23-24).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to properly assess the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Larry Lewis, and (ii) failing to account for all her impairments in the RFC assessment, particularly her mental limitations. The Court agrees that the ALJ failed to properly assess the claimant's RFC at step four, and the decision of the Commissioner is therefore reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of chronic pain and mild degenerative joint disease of the left knee, as well as the nonsevere impairments of COPD/emphysema, essential hypertension, diabetes mellitus, chest pain and scarring of the heart, left leg problems, GERD, profuse perspiration with minimal exertion, rash, knee pain, pneumonia, dizziness, tobacco abuse, sleeping problems/insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks (Tr. 16-17). The record reflects that the claimant was largely treated at the Mercy Clinic in McAlester, Oklahoma, by Dr. Lewis (Tr. 245-279, 303-325, 331-340, 351-356, 375-392). Treatment notes mostly reflect recitation of the claimant's medications, and ...

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