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Calbert v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 25, 2017

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



         The claimant Robert Lee Calbert, Jr., 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 set forth 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 April 3, 1970, and was forty-five years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 757). He earned a GED, and has past relevant work as a donut maker, manager of a restaurant, and short order cook (Tr. 180, 722). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since September 14, 2011, due to major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, alcohol addiction, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma (Tr. 179).

         Procedural History

         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 November 23, 2011. His applications were denied. ALJ Bernard Porter conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated September 24, 2013 (Tr. 7-31). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed in Case No. CIV-14-489-SPS, and remanded upon motion by the Commissioner (Tr. 843-848). Upon remand, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to, inter alia, further evaluate the claimant's mental impairments and give further consideration to the claimant's maximum RFC (Tr. 852). On remand, ALJ David W. Engel held a second administrative hearing and again determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated January 27, 2016 (Tr. 690-724). The Appeals Council denied review, so ALJ Engel's written opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner 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 retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform “between light work and sedentary work, i. e., he could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand/walk two hours total in an eight-hour workday with regular breaks, and sit for six hours total with regular breaks, but he could only occasionally climb ramps/stairs, bend, stoop, crouch, crawl, perform overhead reaching, and use foot pedals and he could never climb ropes/ladders/scaffolds or be exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous moving machinery parts, or environments where he would be exposed to extremes of temperature. Furthermore, the ALJ determined that the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions in a work-related setting, but could only occasionally interact with the general public (regardless of whether interaction took place on the telephone or not), and he could remain attentive and responsive in a work setting and would be able to perform work assignments within these limitations (Tr. 707-708). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work as a driver, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform in the regional and national economy, i. e., clerical mailer, assembler, and stuffer (Tr. 722-724).


         The claimant's sole contention of error is that the ALJ erred by improperly rejecting a number of opinions from his treating physician, Dr. Terry Hoyt. The Court agrees with the claimant's contention and finds that the decision of the Commissioner should therefore be reversed and the case remanded for further analysis.

         ALJ Engel determined that the claimant's severe impairments were chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, right ankle sprain, depression, anxiety with panic attacks, and drug and/or alcohol abuse (Tr. 696). Relevant medical records reflect that Dr. Hoyt treated the claimant for a number of years, until approximately 2015 when he passed away (Tr. 490-494, ...

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