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Griffin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

February 9, 2018

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



         The claimant Ray Griffin 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 the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED and the case REMANDED 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. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 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 December 5, 1962, and was fifty-two years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 37, 43). He completed the twelfth grade, and has worked as a roustabout, material handler, derrick hand, and roughneck (Tr. 24, 253). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since August 15, 2012, due to chronic pain, hip pain, back pain, short term memory loss, leg pain, and tinnitus (Tr. 252).

         Procedural History

         On February 1, 2013, 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. His applications were denied. ALJ Michael Harris held an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated February 5, 2015 (Tr. 15-25). The Appeals Council denied review; thus, the ALJ's written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), but that he could understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; relate to others on a superficial work basis; and he can adapt to a work situation (Tr. 19). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work in the economy he could perform, i. e., sub assembler or electrical equipment, assembler of small products II, and press operator (Tr. 23-25).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) stating that the claimant's anxiety both was and was not a severe impairment, (ii) failing to assign weight to the opinions of the state reviewing physicians, (iii) failing to include postural limitations related to his physical impairment, (iv) failing to properly account for his severe mental impairment, (v) failing to consider the cumulative effects of his impairments, and (vi) failing to account for evidence from his Licensed Clinical Social Worker. The undersigned Magistrate Judge agrees with the claimant's fourth and sixth contentions related to assessing the claimant's RFC, and the decision of the Commissioner should therefore be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of anxiety disorder and degenerative disc disease, then stated that the claimant's anxiety and substance addiction disorder, as well as his hypothyroidism, were nonsevere (Tr. 17-18). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant's treating physician treated him for anxiety, and although it improved with medication, he was still noted to have emotional lability (Tr. 355, 424). Treatment notes from the VA indicate that the claimant struggled with depression and anxiety, reporting depression at an eight on a ten-point scale and anxiety at a nine on a ten-point scale, and that he continued to be treated for anxiety and depression with counseling and medication management (Tr. 374, 382, 411, 455). On February 7, 2013, the claimant was seen for a therapy session at the VA and it was noted that he appeared to be struggling with depression and anxiety (Tr. 474). On February 11, 2013, the claimant was admitted to the ...

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