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Guy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

February 26, 2018

MELANIE GUY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          CHARLES B. GOODWIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Melanie Guy brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) partially denying Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The presiding District Judge has referred this matter to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Commissioner has answered and filed the administrative record (Doc. No. 10, hereinafter “R. ”).[1] The parties have briefed their positions, and the case is now ready for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on April 24, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 22, 2011. R. 192-97, 218-20. Following denial of Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing. R. 51-87, 136-40, 142-44. The ALJ issued a partially favorable decision on June 26, 2015, determining that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to November 17, 2014, but became disabled on that date and was disabled through the date of decision. R. 24-43. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's partially favorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-6; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review, challenging the decision to the extent it was unfavorable.

         ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         As relevant here, a person is “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine entitlement to disability benefits. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. R. 26. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: affective disorder; anxiety-related disorder; eosinophilic gastroenteritis; morbid obesity; diabetes mellitus; a history of multiple abdominal surgeries; and ischemic heart disease. R. 26-28. At step three, the ALJ determined that, prior to November 17, 2014, Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). R. 28-39.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her medically determinable impairments. R. 40-42. The ALJ found that, prior to November 17, 2014, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the following additional limitations:

never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, unprotected heights, or dangerous machinery; and can understand, remember, and carry out simple and detailed instructions.

         R. 40; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) (defining “sedentary” work). At step four, relying upon the hearing testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), R. 84-86, the ALJ found that, prior to November 17, 2014, Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a filing writer. R. 42-43.

         The ALJ next found that, beginning on November 17, 2014, the severity of Plaintiff's impairments met the criteria of Listing 4.04B. R. 43. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to November 17, 2014, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of the ALJ's decision. R. 43.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether correct legal standards were applied. Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, ” including any evidence “that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings, ” “to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (internal quotation marks omitted). While a reviewing court considers whether the Commissioner followed applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court does not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008).

         ANALYSIS

         In this action challenging the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to November 17, 2014, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's step-four decision is not supported by substantial evidence because there is an unexplained conflict between Plaintiff's abilities, as determined in the RFC, and Plaintiff's past relevant work as a filing writer, as that job is defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 14) at 2-4 (citing DOT 203.582-066 (Typist), 1991 WL 671703 (4th rev. ed. 1991)).[2] Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the DOT definition for the occupation of “filing writer” requires a reasoning level of 3 and that reasoning level, in turn, requires the ability to perform “some complex instructions.” Pl.'s Br. at 2-3. Plaintiff contends that this requirement is inconsistent with the RFC assessment that Plaintiff can only perform up to “detailed instructions.” Pl.'s Br. at 2. Thus, contends Plaintiff, the ALJ was obligated to ask the VE to explain the apparent conflict between the ability to perform detailed instructions and the requirement of level-3 reasoning before the ALJ could accept and rely on the VE's testimony. Pl.'s Br. at 2-3; see also Haddock v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 1084, 1087 (10th Cir. 1999) ...


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