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Hughes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 5, 2018

LYNETTE MARIE HUGHES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          GARY M. PURCELL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner denying her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1382. Defendant has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. Administrative History and Agency Decision

         In her applications, Plaintiff alleged she was disabled beginning on May 24, 2013. (AR 199). She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2014, because she returned to work between September and November 2013. (AR 41, 43). Plaintiff's medical records reflect she has been treated for anxiety and depression. On March 26, 2013, Plaintiff was hospitalized after she expressed suicidal thoughts. She was discharged on April 4, 2013. (AR 383-390). Plaintiff has also been treated for physical impairments including hypertension, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, hypercholesterolemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and obesity.

         Plaintiff appeared at an administrative hearing conducted on March 31, 2015 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR 35-58). At this hearing, Plaintiff testified concerning her usual daily activities, symptoms, functional abilities, medications, and medical treatment. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. On July 16, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 10-28).

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process, required by agency regulations, to determine whether Plaintiff had been disabled at any time during the relevant period. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (explaining process); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since the amended alleged onset date. (AR 15). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments including non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, hypercholesterol, obesity, generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and personality disorder. (AR 16). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (AR 16).

         At the next step, the ALJ considered the medical and nonmedical evidence in the record and determined Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at the light exertional level except Plaintiff could stand and walk for only “the total of two hours each” in a regular eight hour workday. (AR 19). Further, the ALJ found Plaintiff was able to perform simple and some complex tasks with routine supervision, occasionally interact with the general public, and would benefit from a “reduced high stress work atmosphere.” (AR 19).

         At step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ relied on the hearing testimony of the VE, who, in turn, relied on the description of Plaintiff's past relevant work contained in the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Taking into account Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work as a special education teacher. (AR 26). At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony and found Plaintiff had acquired work skills from past relevant work that are transferrable to other occupations. (AR 27). As a result, Plaintiff was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy including bill sorter, data clerk, and payroll clerk. (AR 27).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision. Therefore, the ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009).

         II. Plaintiff's Claims

         Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal. First, Plaintiff contends the ALJ incorrectly applied Social Security regulations at step five and as a result, erroneously concluded she possessed transferrable skills that would allow her to perform jobs available within the national economy. Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by not adequately accounting for her mental limitations within the RFC. Finally, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by not giving her treating psychologist's opinion controlling weight.

         III. General Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation and quotations omitted). The “determination of whether the ALJ's ruling is supported by substantial evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Consequently, [the Court must] remain mindful that evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citation, quotations, and brackets omitted).

         The Social Security Act authorizes payment of benefits to an individual with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. A disability is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that 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); see 20 C.F.R. §416.909 (duration requirement). Both the “impairment” and the “inability” must be expected to last not less than twelve months. Barnhart v. Walton, ...


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