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Counts v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

February 27, 2018

SUSAN ELAINE COUNTS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STEVEN P. SHREDER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The claimant Susan Elaine Counts requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The claimant appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. As discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and 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 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 November 21, 1959, and was fifty-five years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 75). She has a high school education, and has worked as a shipping and receiving clerk, sales clerk, and insurance policy clerk (Tr. 88-89, 288). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since August 3, 2010, due to problems with her knees, back pain, neck pain, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and high blood pressure (Tr. 241, 287).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, on February 6, 2012 (241-42). Her application was denied. ALJ Richard J. Kallsnick conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 17, 2013 (Tr. 112-24). The Appeals Council remanded the case on June 13, 2014 (Tr. 131-33). On remand, ALJ Richard J. Kallsnick conducted another administrative hearing and again found that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated January 22, 2015 (Tr. 11-20). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's January 2015 written opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) with occasional stooping and climbing ramps, and never crawling, kneeling, and climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds (Tr. 16). Additionally, the ALJ found the claimant had the non-exertional limitations of performing simple and some complex tasks, dealing with the public occasionally, and relating to coworkers on a superficial work basis (Tr. 16). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as an insurance clerk, or alternatively, because there was work she could perform in the national economy, i. e., data entry clerk, receptionist, and document preparer (Tr. 18-19).

         Review

         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) account for the opinion of consultative examiner Beth Jeffries, Ph.D., (ii) account for her obesity and neck impairment, and (iii) analyze her credibility. The Court agrees with the claimant's first contention, and the Commissioner's decision should therefore be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of history of left knee arthroscopy with abrasion chondroplasty of the patella, osteoarthritis of the left knee, bilateral L4-L5 spinal fusion, depression, and panic disorder without agoraphobia (Tr. 13). The relevant medical evidence in the record indicates that the claimant fell at work in May 2010 and sustained injuries to her knees and back (Tr. 409-13). As to her left knee, she underwent an arthroscopy with abrasion chondroplasty of the patella and partial synovectomies in February 2011; steroid injections in August 2012; hyaluronic injections in December 2012; and a left knee replacement in July 2013 (Tr. 355-57, 610-11, 617-21, 623-24, 634-35, 663-64, 672-73). As to her right knee, she had steroid injections in August 2012, and ...


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