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Hawkins 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 Zacheria Daniel Hawkins requests judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for benefits under the Social Security Act. The claimant appeals the decision of the Commissioner 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 the case 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]

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's review is limited to two inquiries: first, whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence; and, second, whether the correct legal standards were applied. Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997) [citation omitted]. The term substantial evidence has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to require “‘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). The Court may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion for that of the agency. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, 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 on October 13, 1976, and was thirty-nine years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 1292). He attended high school through the tenth grade while attending special education classes, completed his GED, and has worked as a construction worker II, dishwasher, electrician's helper, and receiving operator (Tr. 170, 1277). He alleges inability to work since December 31, 2006, due to left foot numbness, pain in his left leg, numbness in the right foot, back spasms, public anxieties, and back pain (Tr. 170, 209).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85, on August 11, 2011. His applications were denied. ALJ Trace Baldwin conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated October 7, 2013 (Tr. 11-21). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed in Case No. CIV-14-63-RAW-SPS and remanded with instructions to properly consider the evidence related to the claimant's mental impairments (Tr. 1454-1467). On remand, ALJ Baldwin held a second administrative hearing and again determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated August 8, 2016 (Tr. 1265-1278). The Appeals Council again denied review, so ALJ Baldwin's 2016 written opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner 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 steps four and five of the sequential evaluation. Although he previously determined that the claimant could perform a limited range of sedentary work, in this decision the ALJ found that the claimant had the ability to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), but that the RFC was “compromised” as follows: occasionally sitting/standing at the work station with no loss of productivity; occasionally push/pull with upper and lower extremities, stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs; frequently balance; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and cannot work around unprotected heights or unstable work surfaces. The ALJ noted that the claimant had no visual or communicative limitations. Finally, he found that the claimant could carry out simple work-related tasks, could work with co-workers and supervisors but have no contact with the general public, and that he could adapt to routine changes in the work setting (Tr. 1269). The ALJ thus concluded that the claimant could return to his past relevant work as a dishwasher, and alternatively, that there was other work he could perform, i. e., motel cleaner, price marker, final assembler, grinding machine operator, and addresser (Tr. 1278).


         As with his previous appeal, the claimant again contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating his mental impairments. More specifically, he asserts that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate his counselor's other source opinion, failed to properly evaluate a consultative examiner's opinion, and failed to update the record by obtaining an updated medical expert opinion. The undersigned Magistrate Judge agrees that the ALJ once again did not properly assess the claimant's RFC with regard to his mental impairments, and the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed.

         As in his original opinion, the ALJ found the claimant's severe impairments were depression, anxiety, degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, chronic pain syndrome, substance abuse, and hypertension, and that he had the additional nonsevere impairment of mitral regurgitation (Tr. 12-13, 1267). As noted previously, the evidence related to the claimant's mental impairment reflects that the claimant was regularly noted by his treating physicians and emergency department medical records to have chronic anxiety and panic attacks, and was prescribed medications (Tr., e. g., 303, 333, 340, 394, 400, 401, 418, 427, 431, 453, 477, 550, 552, 702, 704, 708, 769, 962, 974, 988, 996, 1022, 1068). The claimant was referred for intake at Mental Health Services of Southern Oklahoma on October 5, 2007, and assessed with panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with a global ...

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