United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
BERNARD M. JONES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Angela Annette Stallings, brings this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social
Security Administration's final decision finding she was
not disabled under the Social Security Act. The parties have
consented to the exercise of jurisdiction over this matter by
a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c). The Commissioner has filed the Administrative
Record (AR), and both parties have briefed their respective
positions. For the reasons stated below, the Court
reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the
matter for further proceedings.
filed applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB)
and supplemental security income (SSI), alleging disability
beginning December 16, 2009. AR 14, 265-74. Following an
administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
issued an unfavorable decision dated March 25, 2011. AR
17-29. The Appeals Council then granted Plaintiff's
request for review and remanded the matter for further
proceedings. AR 130-32. On January 25, 2016, the ALJ again
issued an unfavorable decision. AR 11-27. The Appeals Council
then denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR 1-3.
Therefore, the ALJ's January 25, 2016 decision
constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner.
Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir.
2011). Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial
The ALJ's Decision
followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required
by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart,
431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (explaining process);
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff meets the insured
status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014, and
has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the
alleged onset date, December 16, 2009. AR 17.
two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with
spondylolisthesis of L4-5 and radiculopathy, status post L4-5
decompression and fusion in December 2014, hypertension, and
obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal
any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, App. 1. AR 20-21.
next determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(RFC). The ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform sedentary
“except lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds
occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; stand and
walk for 2 out of 8 hours; sit for 6 out of 8 [hours, ] no
climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; no balancing;
occasionally climb stairs and ramps; occasional kneel,
crouch, crawl, and stoop; and change position in job area
while performing job tasks.” AR 22.
four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past
relevant work as a customer service representative. AR 26.
The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled
under the terms of the Social Security Act. AR 27.
Issue Presented for Judicial Review
seeks judicial review raising three claims of error: (1) the
ALJ failed to properly follow the treating source/physician
rule when addressing the opinion of Susan Hakel, M.D.; (2)
the ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's RFC and the
ALJ's RFC findings are not supported by substantial
evidence; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
Plaintiff's credibility. For the reasons set forth below,
the Court finds Plaintiff's first and third claims of
error have merit, necessitating a remand. Therefore, the
Court deems it unnecessary to address the second claim of
error which might be affected by proceedings on remand.
See Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th
Cir. 2003). The Court further denies Plaintiff's request
for an immediate award of benefits. Further fact-finding is
required at the administrative level.
Standard of Review
review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to
determining whether the factual findings are supported by
substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether the
correct legal standards were applied. See Poppa v.
Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009).
“Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758,
760 (10th Cir. 2003) (quotation omitted).
decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is
overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a
mere scintilla of evidence supporting it. Branum v.
Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004). The
court “meticulously examine[s] 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.” Wall v.
Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (citations
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 does not reweigh the
evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272
(10th Cir. 2008) (quotations and citations omitted).
bears the burden of proof at steps one through four of the
sequential evaluation process to establish a prima facie case
of disability. Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1064
n. 1 (10th Cir. 2013). If Plaintiff meets this burden, the
burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to
show that Plaintiff retains a sufficient RFC to perform other
work that exists in significant numbers in the national
The ALJ's Weighing of Dr. Hakel's Opinion
Hakel treated Plaintiff during the time period January 2008
through April 2012. AR 429; see also AR 669-670. She
initially diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic low-back syndrome.
AR 427. Plaintiff underwent a series of epidural steroid
injections while under Dr. Hakel's care. AR 426; see
also AR 423. Additionally, an MRI during that period of
time revealed “severe deterioration of the L4-5 disk
with anterolisthesis of L4 on L5 and severe compromise of
both neural foramina.” Id.; see also
AR 433, 435, 464, 481, 698. Dr. Hakel recommended that
Plaintiff be evaluated by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Emily Friedman,
as to the feasibility of surgical intervention. Id.
Dr. Hakel observed in this regard that “we can only
expect the back pain to get inexorably worse if we do nothing
but conservative management[.]” Id.
August 2009, Dr. Hakel opined that Plaintiff would need
certain accommodations at work including a heating pad at her
desk, “frequent (hourly) short breaks to get up and
walk around” and that Plaintiff would not be able to
work overtime hours. AR 571. She further opined that sitting
all day would cause pain flare ups and would, in turn,
necessitate Plaintiff missing “1-2 days each
week.” AR 570.
Dr. Hakel's opinion, the ALJ made the following findings:
Dr. Hakel provided no standing or sitting
limitations. She provided that the claimant was unable
to sit for prolonged periods, but prolonged periods is not
defined. The provision that the claimant was likely to be
absent frequently, needed to take frequent breaks, and was
unable to work overtime was inconsistent with other
evidence in the record, the evidence of the State agency
reviewing physicians that opined that the claimant could
perform light work. This opinion was not substantiated by
medical signs in the record.
(emphasis added). The ALJ then “assigned greater weight
to the opinions of the State agency reviewing physicians that
had the opportunity to review the longitudinal
record.” Id. (emphasis added).
Consequently, the ALJ assigned “little weight” to
Dr. Hakel's opinion. Id.
then noted that in March 2010, Robin Hall, M.D., performed a
consultative examination of Plaintiff and “provided
no functional limitations.” Id.
(emphasis added). The ALJ ...