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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

December 8, 2017

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


          Gerald B. Cohn United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for a report and recommendation. Yalonda C. Williams (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the undersigned recommends to DENY Plaintiff's appeal and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision in this case.


         To receive disability or supplemental security benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”), a claimant bears the burden to demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (setting forth the five steps in detail). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1064 at n.1. (10th Cir. 2013). If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See id. Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court's review is based on the record, and the Court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the [Administrative Law Judge's] findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. The Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision stands. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).


         A. Procedural History

         On November 15 and 21, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed a claim for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, originally alleging disability since October 11, 2012. (Tr. 198). Plaintiff was 51 years old on the date of the Commissioner's final decision (Tr. 36, 38, 198, 201). At the administrative hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) granted her motion to amend the onset date to November 1, 2013, based on the receipt of unemployment benefits until that date. (Tr. 19, 36, 38). On April 29, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision on finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 17-25). On July 20, 2016, the agency's appeals council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-5). This appeal followed.


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges two errors: (1) the ALJ erred violated agency regulations by citing insufficient vocational testimony at step five of the sequential evaluation process; and (2) the ALJ violated agency regulations by relying on the improper weighing of the medical evidence by her state agency physicians. (Pl. Br. at 2, Doc. 13).

         A. Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and the Hypothetical Question 1.Performance of Other Jobs

         Plaintiff states the ALJ erred at step five of the sequential evaluation process. (Pl. Br. at 2).

         The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's severe impairments and RFC before determining whether Plaintiff could perform other jobs in the national economy:

The claimant has the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease …
the claimant has the RFC to perform less than the full range of “light” work … Claimant could lift / carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently; could sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; could stand / walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; could push / pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; and could occasionally reach overhead with either left or right shoulders.

(Tr. 20-21). The ALJ proposed a hypothetical question with Plaintiff's RFC to the vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. 70-71). The VE testified such an individual could perform the unskilled light jobs of routing clerk and assembler of electrical accessories. (Tr. 73).

         The ALJ found the VE testimony consistent with the U.S. Department of Labor, Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) and Plaintiff could perform the jobs in the national economy. (Tr. 24). Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred because the DOT classifies those jobs as “frequent reaching” when Plaintiff has a limitation for occasional reaching overhead. (Pl. Br. at 3).

         At the hearing, the ALJ specifically questioned the VE regarding the overhead reaching. (Tr. 71). Following the ALJ's inquiry, the VE eliminated the “housekeeper” job due to the possibility of overhead reaching. (Tr. 72). However, the VE testified a production worker would not have more than occasional overhead reaching. Id. According to the DOT, the two occupations identified by the vocational expert-routing clerk, DOT No. 222.687-022, 1991 WL 672133, and assembler of electrical accessories, DOT No. 729.687-010, 1991 WL 679733-require: “Reaching: Frequently - Exists from 1/3 to 2/3 of the time.” The DOT further describes the jobs of routing clerk and assembler of electrical accessories as follows:

Routing Clerk
Sorts bundles, boxes, or lots of articles for delivery: Reads delivery or route numbers marked on articles or delivery slips, or determines locations of addresses indicated on delivery slips, using charts. Places or stacks articles in bins designated according to route, driver, or type. May be designated according to work station as Conveyor Belt Package Sorter (retail trade). May sort sacks of mail and be known as Mail Sorter (r.r. trans.).

DOT No. 222.687-022, 1991 WL ...

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