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McCarty v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 25, 2017

FRANCES ALLIENE BERNICE MCCARTY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STEVEN P. SHREDER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The claimant Frances Alliene Bernice McCarty requests judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act. She appeals the decision of the Commissioner and asserts that 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 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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 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]

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's review is limited to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence, and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997) [citation omitted]. The term “substantial evidence” requires “‘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). However, the Court may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion for that of the agency. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, 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 May 1, 1959, and was fifty-five years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 28). She earned a GED, and has worked as a cook, kitchen helper, a combined cashier II and janitor, and informal waitress (Tr. 46, 198). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since July 3, 2012, due to a stroke, depression, and back and neck problems (Tr. 197).

         Procedural History

         On March 14, 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. Her applications were denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II, held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated December 8, 2014 (Tr. 10-18). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written decision represents 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 four of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), except that she could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, squat, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and that she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Additionally, the ALJ determined that the claimant could only occasionally reach overhead bilaterally, but could reach in all other directions if she does not have to hold things weighing fifteen pounds or more when her arms are extended (Tr. 14). The ALJ thus concluded that the claimant could return to her past relevant work as a combination cashier II and janitor (Tr. 17-18).

         Review

         The claimant's sole contention of error is that the ALJ failed to account for her nonsevere mental impairments in formulating her RFC. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in his analysis and his decision is not supported by substantial evidence.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, as well as the nonsevere impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and history of polysubstance abuse (Tr. 12-13). The medical evidence related to the claimant's mental impairments reveals treatment notes from the Choctaw Health Services Center that included diagnoses of anxiety and depression, and ...


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