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Pugh v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 29, 2017

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


          Paul J. Cleary, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Anthony Leon Pugh, seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          I. 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 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see, e.g., Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Step One requires the claimant to establish that she is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. Step Two requires that the claimant establish that she has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit her ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At Step Three, the claimant's impairments are compared with certain impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1 (“Listings”). A claimant suffering from a listed impairment or impairments “medically equivalent” to a listed impairment is determined to be disabled without further inquiry. If not, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) proceeds to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. At Step Four, the claimant must establish that he does not retain the RFC to perform his past relevant work, if any. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant's Step Four burden is met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at Step Five that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant, taking into account his age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966. Disability benefits are denied if the Commissioner meets this burden at Step Five. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope to two inquiries: first, whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence; and, second, whether the correct legal standards were applied. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quotation and citation omitted). Although the court will not reweigh the evidence, the court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff, then a 51-year old male, applied for Title II benefits on April 6, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of April 4, 2007. (R. 160-62). Plaintiff claimed that he was disabled due to multiple back issues, including degenerative disc disease, bulging disc, and two surgeries. (R. 169). Plaintiff's claim for benefits was denied initially on January 24, 2012, and on reconsideration on April 9, 2012. (R. 79-82). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ held the hearing on February 6, 2013. (R. 39-78). The ALJ issued a decision on March 21, 2013, denying benefits. (R. 23-38). The Appeals Council denied review, and plaintiff appealed to the District Court. (R. 1-4, 549-65). United States Magistrate Judge T. Lane Wilson issued a Report and Recommendation, which was adopted by the District Court, to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand the case for further proceedings. (R. 549-65). The Report and Recommendation found that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence from Dr. Gerald Rana, plaintiff's treating physician. (R. 560-64).

         On remand, the ALJ held a hearing on January 13, 2016. (R. 498-547). The ALJ issued a new decision on April 7, 2016, again denying plaintiff benefits. (R. 481-97). The ALJ found that plaintiff was insured through December 31, 2012, and that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of April 4, 2007. (R. 486). The ALJ noted that plaintiff offered, at the second hearing, to amend his onset date to July 6, 2009, but the ALJ declined to do so.[2] Id. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairment of “lumbar spine Degenerative Disc Disease.” Id. The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine” and hypertension were non-severe impairments and that plaintiff's alleged impairments of right shoulder pain and migraines were not medically determinable impairments. (R. 486-87). The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal a listing. (R. 487).

         After reviewing plaintiff's testimony and the medical evidence, the ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a limited range of sedentary work:

He could perform no lifting or carrying more than 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently with pushing/pulling limitations consistent with lifting and carrying limitations. He could stand/walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday; walk for 20-30 minutes at a time; stand for 20-30 minutes at a time; sit for 6-8 hours out of an eig h t -hour workday for 30-60 minutes at a time. He must be able to change positions but does not need to leave the work station. He can occasionally climb stairs, balance, bend or stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. He cannot climb ladders, ropes and scaffolding.

Id. Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work, but he did retain some transferable skills from those jobs, including “inspection, quality control, wood working and record keeping.” (R. 491). The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform other work, such as a “matrix inspector” (sedentary, semi-skilled work) and “asbestos-shingle inspector” (sedentary semi-skilled work). (R. 492).

         III. Analysis

         On appeal, plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC findings are not supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. 15). Plaintiff's argument centers on the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinion evidence and, as he did in his first appeal, plaintiff challenges the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Rana's opinion. Id. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not give specific, legitimate reasons for giving little weight to Dr. Rana's opinion. Id. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ selectively disregarded evidence of plaintiff's pain from Dr. Rana's opinion and treatment notes that would support a finding of disability and that the ALJ ignored evidence from 2014 and 2015, more than two years after plaintiff's date last insured, which supported Dr. Rana's findings. Id. Plaintiff ...

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