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Schultz 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 Antoinette Schultz 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 January 3, 1969, and was forty-five years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 45). She completed the eleventh grade, and has no past relevant work (Tr. 35, 162). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since November 30, 2011, due to rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, hepatitis C, depression, and bipolar disorder (Tr. 161).

         Procedural History

         On October 31, 2012, the claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Her application was denied. ALJ Lantz McClain conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated October 22, 2014 (Tr. 26-36). 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. § 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 light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), i. e., she could lift/carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit and stand/walk for six hours each in an eight-hour workday. The ALJ imposed the further limitations of no more than frequently kneeling, crouching, or crawling; avoiding work above the shoulder level; and avoiding concentrated exposure to dust, gases, fumes, or poor ventilation (Tr. 31). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant had no past relevant work to return to, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform, i. e., the representative occupations of courier and cafeteria attendant (Tr. 36).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to perform a proper evaluation at steps four and five, (ii) failing to properly evaluate the source evidence, and (iii) failing to conduct a proper credibility determination. As to the first two arguments, the claimant specifically contends that the ALJ erred by wholly failing to account for her mental impairments, and the Court agrees. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is therefore reversed.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of osteoarthritis, asthma, and obesity, as well as the nonsevere impairments of depression and anxiety (Tr. 28). The evidence in the record related to the claimant's mental impairments indicates that she largely received treatment through the Cherokee Nation Health Services (Tr. 230-342), and her diagnoses included asthma, lipid disorder, hepatitis C, substance abuse, seasonal allergies, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, dyslipidemia, and GERD (Tr. 232). Positive depression screening and notes reflecting the claimant's reported anxiety go back at least as far as 2010 (Tr. 293, 317, ...

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