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Northcraft v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 5, 2018

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



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Acting Commissioner denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1382. Defendant has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR___), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(B)(1)(b). For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. Administrative History and Agency Decision

         Plaintiff filed his applications in December 2013, alleging that he became disabled on August 15, 2013, due to bipolar disorder.[2] At the time he filed his applications and at the time he alleged he became disabled, Plaintiff was 25 years old. He had a high school education, and he worked part-time as a sales clerk. Plaintiff stated that he stopped working in January 2015 when he voluntarily quit his job.

         The administrative record reflects medical treatment of Plaintiff for bipolar disorder, deep vein thrombosis, and superficial thrombophlebitis. Plaintiff was prescribed medications for these conditions. Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Li, opined in a letter dated December 10, 2013, that she had treated Plaintiff since November 2008 for bipolar disorder and that Plaintiff had symptoms of depression, anxiety, racing thoughts, labile mood, fair insight, and fair to poor impulse control. (AR 269, 411). Further, Dr. Li stated that Plaintiff was unable to maintain steady employment due to his labile mood, impulsivity, and inability to handle even daily stressors in a healthy manner. According to Dr. Li, Plaintiff was financially dependent on his parents, was easily overwhelmed and worried about things, had periods of mania with increased spending, impulsivity, racing thoughts, little regard to consequences, and difficulty adjusting to even slight changes in work environment or when faced with stressful situations. Additionally, Dr. Li listed Plaintiff's mood-stabilizing and anti-depressant medications.

         In July 2014 Plaintiff underwent a consultative psychological evaluation conducted by Dr. Waller. (AR 412-415). In this evaluation, Plaintiff stated that he had a high school education, lived with his parents, worked 2 days per week, and was being treated for bipolar disorder with medications. He was also undergoing therapy for a gambling problem. He had never been hospitalized for a mental health impairment, and he described his daily activities and symptoms. Dr. Waller noted that a mental status examination of Plaintiff yielded normal results. Dr. Waller also noted a diagnostic impression of bipolar I disorder, most recent episode mixed, with rapid cycling and possible pathological gambling.

         Plaintiff appeared at a hearing conducted on August 6, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Merchan (“ALJ”). Plaintiff testified at the hearing, and a vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. When provided hypothetical questioning concerning an individual with Plaintiff's vocational characteristics (age, education, and work experience) and the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) (see AR 65-66) described by the ALJ, the VE testified that such an individual could perform the requirements of a number of jobs existing in the national and state economies.

         In a decision entered September 21, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a severe impairment due to bipolar disorder. Despite that impairment, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels but limited to “no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements with only simple work-related decision making and few, if any, changes in the work setting; he should have no public contact; he can tolerate occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers; and he would not be able to perform joint, team, or tandem tasks.” (AR 15).

         Relying on the VE's testimony concerning the availability of jobs for an individual with this RFC for work, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Specifically, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including the representative jobs of document scanner, janitor, and groundskeeper. Based on these findings, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and therefore the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009).

         II. General Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is 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); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The “determination of whether the ALJ's ruling is supported by substantial evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Consequently, [the Court must] remain mindful that evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citations, internal quotation marks, and brackets omitted).

         The Social Security Act authorizes payment of benefits to an individual with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. A disability is 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); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.909 (duration requirement). Both the “impairment” and the “inability” must be expected to last not less than twelve months. Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002).

         The agency follows a five-step sequential evaluation procedure in resolving the claims of disability applicants. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), (b)-(g), 416.920(a)(4), (b)-(g). “If the claimant is not considered disabled at step three, but has satisfied her burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability under steps one, two, and four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience.” Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005). “The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he [or she] is not able to perform other work.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987).

         III. Evaluation of Medical ...

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