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Fulton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 25, 2017

LINDA C. FULTON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         The claimant Linda C. Fulton 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 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 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 on August 20, 1955, and was fifty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 42). She has a high school equivalent education, and has worked as a security guard (Tr. 43, 53). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since February 26, 2012, due to depression, H. pylori, ulcers, leg cramps, and pain in her hips, back, neck, legs and arms (Tr. 47, 217).

         Procedural History

         On August 2, 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits and disabled widow's benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 185-92). Her applications were denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated January 30, 2015 (Tr. 16-30). 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.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step four of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (Tr. 24). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as a security guard (Tr. 30).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) consider her non-severe affective disorder, and (ii) analyze the opinions of treating physician Dr. Rick Robbins. The Court agrees with the claimant's second contention, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found the claimant's degenerative disc disease of the back and osteoarthritis were severe impairments, but that her weight loss, hypertension, H. pylori, bilateral carpal tunnel release, cervical fusion surgeries, headaches, leg cramps, and affective disorder were non-severe (Tr. 20-22). The medical evidence relevant to this appeal reveals that Dr. Robbins regularly treated the claimant between February 2013 and August 2014 (Tr. 479-515). Physical, neurological, and neuropsychiatric examinations at these appointments were consistently normal, and the claimant's diagnoses included, inter alia, back pain, hip pain, arthralgia, hypertension, cephalgia, degenerative joint disease, dizziness, tension headache, leg cramps, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and depression (Tr. 479-515). February 2013 x-rays of the claimant's lumbar spine revealed mild degenerative disc disease at ΒΆ 12 through L2, and retrolisthesis of L1 on L2, L2 on L3, and L3 on L4 (Tr. 482). X-rays of the claimant's cervical ...

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