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Cowen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 26, 2018

DARREN JAMES COWEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         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 benefits 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).

         Upon careful consideration, the Court concludes the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical evidence supporting a conclusion that Plaintiff's severe back impairment could meet or equal the clinical criteria for an award of benefits under § 1.04A of the Listing of Impairments. Therefore, the Court REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further administrative proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 13-26). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         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 20, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. (TR. 15).

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had one severe impairment- degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, post-surgical-and several non-severe conditions including hypertension, GERD, depression, insomnia and anxiety (TR. 15).

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe and non-severe 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. 18). The ALJ summarized the clinical criteria for meeting Listing 1.04, but she did not discuss how the evidence supported her conclusion. (TR. 18).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with certain postural limitations. (TR. 18-19). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work as a truck driver. (TR. 24). At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE) and determined there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. The VE identified three such jobs by description and code from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). (TR. 73-74). The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled based on his ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 25-26).

         III. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred: (1) by failing to discuss significantly probative evidence that conflicted with her findings, (2) by failing to support her assessment of Plaintiff's subjective statements with substantial evidence in the record, and (3) by failing to sufficiently analyze Listing 1.04A at step three of the sequential evaluation.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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). ‚ÄúSubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a ...


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