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Griffith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

February 9, 2018

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



         The claimant Michael Griffith requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED and REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         Social Security Law and Standard of Review

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act “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[.]” Id. § 423 (d)(2)(A). Social security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[2]

         Section 405(g) limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938); see also Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's. See Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Svcs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). But the Court must review the record as a whole, and “[t]he substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01.

         Claimant's Background

         The claimant was born February 17, 1983, and was thirty-one years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 33). He completed high school, and has worked as a stocker, car salesman, welder, truck driver, and mechanic industrial truck driver (Tr. 54-56, 204). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since December 31, 2012, due to a back injury, left leg injury, and left hip injury (Tr. 203).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85, on June 26, 2013. His applications were denied. ALJ Trace Baldwin held an administrative hearing, then ALJ John W. Belcher determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 16, 2015 (Tr. 12-240). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's decision represents the Commissioners' final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984, 416.1484.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         ALJ Belcher made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full light work, i. e., he could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pound frequently, stand/walk and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday, and that he could frequently climb stairs and balance, but only occasionally bend, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl (Tr. 16). As such, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled because he could return to his past relevant work as a car salesman and stocker (Tr. 23).


         The claimant argues that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion of his chiropractor, Dr. Gene Mills. He alleges that this was compounded by the fact that the ALJ misconstrued the opinions of treating physician Dr. Malone and consultative examiner Dr. Ronald Schatzman. The undersigned Magistrate Judge finds that the ALJ did fail to properly evaluate the evidence in the record, and the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of chronic back pain due to lumbosacral and thoracic spine injury and obesity, as well as the nonsevere impairments of left leg and left hip impairment, fracture of three ribs, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and depression (Tr. 14). The relevant medical evidence reflects that the claimant was in a motor vehicle rollover accident on December 31, 2012, and was diagnosed with a pulmonary contusion, closed L1 vertebral fracture, closed wedge compression fracture of T12 vertebra, and closed wedge compression fracture of T11 vertebra (Tr. 295, 303, 310). The claimant was discharged on January 2, 2013, and instructed not to drive and to wear his brace whenever he was up and ambulating, at least until he was evaluated for follow up three weeks later (Tr. 343). A note from the claimant's treating physician indicates that the brace prescribed him needed adjusting because it was not fitting right on January 9, 2013 (Tr. 322). Dr. David G. Malone continued follow-up treatment for the claimant. His notes reflect that he found the claimant temporarily unable to work in the immediate aftermath of the injury, and on March 14, 2013, he noted that the claimant's fracture was healing, but that he still had a kyphotic deformity as expected, and noted that the claimant had a 30-pound lifting restriction, no pulling of hoses, and no ...

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