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Stone v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

October 19, 2017

BRENDA STONE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript the administrative record (hereinafter TR. ___). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 11-22). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-4). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 17, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. (TR. 13). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Stone had the following severe impairments: obesity; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); generalized anxiety disorder; chronic sinusitis; allergic rhinitis; asthma; and migraines. (TR. 13). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 14).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work. (TR. 20). The ALJ further concluded that Ms. Stone retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[L]ift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for about 6 hours during an eight-hour workday and can stand and walk for about 6 hours during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant is to avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, and poor ventilation. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The claimant can respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and usual work situations, but have no contact with the general public.

(TR. 16).

         With this RFC, the ALJ made additional findings at step five. There, the ALJ presented several limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 59-61). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). (TR. 60-61). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Stone was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 21-22).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in failing to: (1) include limitations in the RFC which reflected severe impairments at step two and moderate restrictions at step three, (2) properly evaluate a finding of disability from the Veteran's Administration (VA), and (3) properly evaluate opinions from three physicians.


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).


         Ms. Stone alleges that the RFC failed to include specific limitations which reflected the ALJ's findings at steps two and three. (ECF No. 22:2-13). The Court disagrees.

         A. ALJ's Duty in Assessing the RFC-Physical & Mental Impairments

         In assessing an individual's mental impairment, the ALJ must employ a “special technique” which involves rating the degree of functional limitation under four broad functional areas. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This assessment is documented on a Psychiatric Review Technique (PRT) form and is used to rate the severity of the mental impairment at steps two and three of the sequential evaluation process. See SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *6-7 (July 2, 1996).

         Step four requires a more detailed assessment by itemizing various functions contained in the broad categories summarized on the PRT. Id. In assessing the RFC for both physical and mental impairments, the ALJ must consider the limitations and restrictions imposed by a claimant's severe impairments and express any limitations in terms of specific, work-related activities he or she is able to perform. Id., at *6-7.

         B. No Reversible Error ...

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