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Mullens v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

February 27, 2018

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



         The claimant Carroll C. Mullens 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 is 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]

         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 March 2, 1969, and was forty-five years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 179, 342). He has a high school education, and has worked as a delivery route driver, welder, and car dealer (Tr. 184, 363). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since an amended onset date of August 21, 2012, due to diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and neuropathy (Tr. 69, 183).

         Procedural History

         On August 21, 2012, 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 (Tr. 40, 124).[3] His applications were denied. ALJ J. Frederick Gatzke conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated August 4, 2014 (Tr. 40-52). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion represents the Commissioners' 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), except that he required the intermittent opportunity to alternate sitting and standing approximately every forty-five minutes in addition to lunch and normal breaks (Tr. 43). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform in the national economy, e. g., touch-up screener, document preparer, and semiconductor bonder (Tr. 50-52).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinions of treating physicians Dr. Vivek Khetpal and Dr. Nadia Ahktar. The Court agrees, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found the claimant's diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, hypertension, obesity, and cervical degenerative changes were severe impairments (Tr. 42). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant established care with Dr. Khetpal at the Heart and Medical Center in February 2013 (Tr. 271). Initial treatment consisted of a stress test and carotid ultrasound, both of which were normal (Tr. 264-67). At an appointment on March 7, 2013, the claimant reported severe neuropathy that prevented him from working (Tr. 260-63). Dr. Khetpal's physical examination was normal and he diagnosed the claimant with diabetes and labile hypertension (Tr. 260-63). At a follow-up appointment on November 25, 2013, the claimant reported intermittent, moderate back pain and radicular leg pain (Tr. 284-86). Dr. Khetpal noted the claimant had a slowed gait and decreased range of motion in his back and left hip (Tr. 284-86). Similar examination findings were made in December 2013 and January 2014 (Tr. 274-83). The claimant transferred his care to Dr. Akhtar (also at the Heart and Medical Center) in March ...

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