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Noland 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 Martin Noland requests judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for benefits under the Social Security Act. He appeals the decision of the Commissioner and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. As discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and the case 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: 1) whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence, and 2) 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 March 13, 1962, and was fifty-two years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 79). He graduated high school, and has worked as a production machine tender, maintenance repairer, construction worker I, and a delivery driver (Tr. 67, 79). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since July 18, 2012, due to liver cancer stage 2, liver disease, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and Hepatitis B (Tr. 249).

         Procedural History

         On July 30, 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. His applications were denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II, conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated August 8, 2014 (Tr. 57-69). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's decision represents 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 found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that he was restricted to semi-skilled work, which requires understanding, remembering, and carrying out some detailed skills but does not require doing more complex work duties; he is able to have superficial interpersonal contact with supervisors and co-workers; he can have only occasional contact with the general public; and he can attend and concentrate for extended periods with normal breaks (Tr. 63). The ALJ thus concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform, e. g., housekeeping cleaner and small product assembler (Tr. 67-69).


         The claimant alleges that the ALJ erred in assessing his subjective complaints, particularly with regard to his mental impairments. The Court agrees, and the decision of the Commissioner should therefore be reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of chronic liver disease, status post liver cancer, and affective disorder (Tr. 60). Evidence related to the claimant's mental impairments indicates that the claimant went to the emergency room a number of times for chest discomfort (Tr., e. g., 515, 627, 704). Heart problems were ruled out, although he was noted to have anxiety (Tr. 515). On February 12, 2014, the claimant was detained for an emergency detention period under mental health laws after reporting feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and contemplating suicide (Tr. 769- 786). On February 19, 2014, his discharge diagnosis was major depressive disorder, single episode, ...

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