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Bennett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

February 16, 2018

JANICE R. BENNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER TO DENY PLAINTIFF'S APPEAL

          Gerald B. Cohn United States Magistrate Judge

         OPINION AND ORDER TO DENY PLAINTIFF'S APPEAL

         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for decision. Janice R. Bennett (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's appeal and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision in this case.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To receive di sability or supplemental security benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”), a claimant bears the burden to demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (setting forth the five steps in detail). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1064 at n.1. (10th Cir. 2013). If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See id. Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court's review is based on the record, and the Court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the [Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”)] findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. The Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision stands. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) payments under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3), in October 2008. (See Tr. 46-49). She alleged disability beginning December 2, 2007, due to arthritis and deteriorating bones in the spine. (Tr. 132). After early denials, Plaintiff testified at an administrative hearing and, in August 2010, an ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 17-24, 27-45, 51-58, 62-67). The Appeals Council declined review. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff then appealed to this Court, which remanded the case to the agency for further proceedings. (Tr. 536-52).

         The ALJ held a new administrative hearing, during which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 513-35). Plaintiff amended her alleged onset of disability to June 10, 2009. (Tr. 495, 515-16). At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-nine years old. (Tr. 30). In August 2014, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of August 28, 2013, but not disabled at any earlier time. (Tr. 495-506). On October 6, 2016, the Appeals Council declined review of the new decision, making the August 2014 ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 481-86). Plaintiff then appealed to this Court. The overarching question from the second ALJ decision is whether Plaintiff was not disabled prior to August 28, 2013.

         III. ISSUES AND ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges four errors: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to properly apply the treating physician rule; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to find Plaintiff limited to at least light work and should “grid out” according to the medical vocational guidelines; (3) the ALJ erred at Step [Five][2] of the sequential evaluation process by finding Plaintiff could perform work, which directly violates her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) limitations; and (4) the ALJ erred at Step Five of the sequential evaluation process by finding Plaintiff could perform the job duties of cook helper, dining room attendant, and machine packager. (Pl. Br. at 2, Doc. 13).

         A. ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Evidence

         1.Opinions in the Record

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to properly apply the treating physician rule and gave the Disability Determination physicians great weight even though they did not examine Plaintiff. (Pl. Br. at 2-3). In the decision, the ALJ reviewed the record when evaluating the medical evidence:

Since the amended alleged onset date of disability, June 10, 2009, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Beginning on the established onset date of disability, August 28, 2013, the claimant has had ...

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