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Cearley 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 Nikita Marie Cearley 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 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 the 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 September 4, 1986, and was twenty-seven years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 35, 175). She completed twelfth grade, and has previously worked as a cashier II, change booth cashier, cleaner housekeeper, and food service worker (Tr. 27, 202). The claimant alleges inability to work since February 1, 2011, due to bipolar disorder, paranoia, depression, and anxiety (Tr. 201).

         Procedural History

         On November 21, 2012, 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. The applications were denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated June 17, 2014 (Tr. 18-28). 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 five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the nonexertional limitations of being limited to simple, repetitive tasks with routine supervision, only occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers, and no work-related contact with the general public (Tr. 23). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because she could perform the requirements of a representative occupation such as silver wrapper (Tr. 26-27).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred: (i) by failing to properly weigh the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Wellie Adlaon, and (ii) because she lacks the RFC to perform significant gainful activity. Because the ALJ does appear to have ignored probative evidence regarding the claimant's impairments, the decision of the Commissioner must be reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of mood disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), methamphetamine abuse in remission, alcohol abuse in remission, cannabis abuse in remission, paranoid personality, major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and personality disorder, as well as the nonsevere impairments of insomnia, severe hemorrhoids, asthma, obesity, and Bell's palsy (Tr. 21). The relevant medical evidence demonstrates that the claimant was largely treated for basic medical care at the Choctaw Nation Health Center in McAlester, Oklahoma (Tr. 302-333). The claimant also received mental health treatment and medication management from Dr. Wellie Adlaon in McAlester. His treatment notes reflect a diagnosis of adjustment disorder (Tr. 394-415, 418-427). In May 2012, he noted she was still reporting racing thoughts and that she had minimal though content and abnormal concentration in that she could not maintain it (Tr. 398). Almost a year later, in April ...

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