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Heck v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 25, 2017

JAMES D. HECK, 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 James D. Heck 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 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 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 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, 1960, and was fifty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 37). He completed his GED, and has worked as a tanker-trailer truck driver, general maintenance worker, and truck driver (Tr. 25, 182). The claimant alleges inability to work since February 6, 2012, due to spots on his lungs (Tr. 181).

         Procedural History

         On December 10, 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 benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Both applications were denied. ALJ Bernard Porter conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated November 26, 2014 (Tr. 16-27). 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 light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), finding that he could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and sit/stand/walk each for six hours in an eight-hour workday, but that he could only have occasional use of foot and hand controls, overhead reaching, kneeling and climbing ramps and stairs; frequent stooping and crouching; but that he could never crawl or work around unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts, and that he should avoid an environment where there are temperature extremes. Furthermore, he stated that time off tasks would be accommodated by normal breaks, but that the claimant did require a sit/stand option which allows for a change in position at least every thirty minutes for a brief positional change lasting no more than three to four minutes at a time (Tr. 21). The ALJ 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, i. e., cashier, arcade attendant, and small product assembler (Tr. 25-25).

         Review

         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred: (i) in his RFC analysis with regard to mental limitations, and (ii) by failing to properly consider the medical evidence, specifically with regard to weighing a consultative examiner's opinion and treatment records. Because the ALJ does appear to have erred in assessing the evidence with regard to the claimant's RFC, the decision of the Commissioner must be reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of lumbar disc disease, mild degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, and history of drug abuse (Tr. 18). The medical evidence in the record is sparse, so the claimant was sent for two separate consultative examinations. At the administrative hearing, the claimant testified that he had no insurance or money to pay for ...


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