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Bell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 25, 2017

LISA ANN BELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         The claimant Lisa Ann Bell 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 discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby AFFIRMED.

         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[.]” 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 October 18, 1970, and was forty-three years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 387). She completed the tenth grade, and has worked as a nurse aide (Tr. 192, 375). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since May 5, 2007, due to degenerative disc disease, problems with her knees, morbid obesity, and depression (Tr. 191).

         Procedural History

         On February 8, 2010, 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 Trace Baldwin conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated August 24, 2011 (Tr. 13-25). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed on appeal in Case No. CIV-12-124-SPS, and remanded the case to the ALJ with instructions to properly account for the claimant's obesity (Tr. 438-451). ALJ Bernard Porter held a second administrative hearing and again determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated October 2, 2014 (Tr. 359-377). The Appeals Council again 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 made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), i. e., she could lift/carry ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently, stand/walk two hours in an eight-hour workday, sit six hours in an eight-hour workday. Additionally, he found she was limited to occasionally using foot and hand controls, kneeling, and climbing ramps and stairs; frequently balancing, stooping, and crouching; and never crawling, or climbing ladders or scaffolds. Furthermore, he found she was precluded from work at unprotected heights, around moving mechanical parts, concentrated exposures to humidity, wetness, dust, fumes, and gases, and environments with temperature extremes. Finally, he limited her to simple tasks and simple work-related work decisions with occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors but no interaction with the general public with time off tasks accommodated by normal workday breaks (Tr. 366). The ALJ thus concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform, e. g., document scanner, address clerk, and assembly inspector (Tr. 375-376).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to properly assess her RFC, specifically as to her mental impairments, and (ii) failing to properly consider the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Michael Irvin, D.O. Neither of these contentions have merit, and the decision of the Commissioner should therefore be affirmed.

         On remand, ALJ Porter determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of obesity, lumbar disc disease, diabetes mellitus, neuropathy, degenerative joint disease of the knees, and major depression (Tr. 361). The medical evidence reflects that on January 17, 2008, a CT scan of the lumbar spine revealed mild central canal stenosis at ¶ 4-L5 and L5-S1, as well as degenerative disk disease L5-S1 (Tr. 246). On October 8, 2008, she underwent a left knee arthroscopy with ...

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