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Laskey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 4, 2018

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 applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of 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 REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 19-36). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). 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 & 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 9, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (TR. 21). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Laskey had the following severe impairments: Chiari I malformation; migraine headaches; degenerative disc disease; and obesity. (TR. 21). 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. 27).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Laskey retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) in that the claimant is able to lift, carry, push and/or pull ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; sit for the total of six hours throughout an eight-hour workday; and stand and/or walk the total of two hours throughout an eight-hour workday. The claimant is able to occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, stoop, and climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is able to balance in order to sit, stand, walk, and perform postural activities that do not involve extraordinary, additional, or unusual balancing, the claimant must avoid all exposure to work at unprotected heights and around hazardous unprotected machinery. The claimant cannot perform any commercial driving.

(TR. 28). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (TR. 34). As a result, 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 with her RFC. (TR. 80). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). (TR. 80-81). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Laskey was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 35).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in her consideration of: (1) Plaintiff's migraine headaches, (2) Plaintiff's mental impairments, and (3) evidence 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).


         According to Ms. Laskey, the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiff's testimony concerning her migraine headaches. (ECF No. 13:5-10). Plaintiff is correct.

         A. ALJ's Duty to Evaluate Plaintiff's Testimony

         Social Security regulations require a two-step process to evaluate a claimant's subjective allegations. First, the adjudicator must consider whether there is an underlying medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the individuals' pain. Policy Interpretation Ruling Titles II and XVI: Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing the Credibility of an Individual's Statements, 1996 WL 374186, at *2 (July 2, 1996) (SSR 96-7p). Second, the adjudicator must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the individual's symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms limit the individual's ability to perform basic work activities. Id. In doing so, the ALJ must make a finding on the claimant's credibility based on a ...

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