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Poteet-Hayes 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 Betty J. Poteet-Hayes requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she 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 h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] 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 the 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 May 22, 1961, and was fifty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 40, 253). She completed eleventh grade, and has no past relevant work (Tr. 31, 321). The claimant alleges inability to work since December 15, 2009, due to back problems, right arm problems, right leg problems, and depression (Tr. 320).

         Procedural History

         On April 17, 2012, the claimant applied for disabled widow's 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 April 10, 2012.[3] The applications were denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated January 7, 2015 (Tr. 21-33). The Appeals Council denied review, so 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 light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), i. e., she could lift/carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, and stand/walk/sit each for six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, he imposed the additional limitations of being limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; simple work-related decisions; cannot perform at a production rate pace (e. g., assembly line work) but can perform goal-oriented work (e. g., office cleaner); can relate to co-workers, supervisors, and the general public on a superficial basis; and can adapt to a work situation (Tr. 26). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant had no past relevant work to return to, she was nevertheless not disabled because she could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as motel housekeeper, conveyor line bakery worker, and inspector packer (Tr. 32).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to properly evaluate the medical and nonmedical source evidence, (ii) failing to properly conduct determinations at steps four and five, (iii) failing to properly assess her credibility, and (iv) essentially reopening her prior claim for benefits. The claimant also asserts that evidence submitted to the Appeals Council should be considered. Because the ALJ does appear to have ignored probative evidence regarding the claimant's impairments, the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the cervical spine, chronic low back pain, obesity, depression severe with psychotic features, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Tr. 24). The relevant medical evidence demonstrates that in 2006 the claimant was in a motor vehicle accident and suffered subluxations in her spine, resulting in a diagnosis of lumbar strain (Tr. 476, 588). On ...

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