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Wallace v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 9, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Michael Floyd Wallace 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”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Chief United States District Judge Joe Heaton 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, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff protectively filed his DIB application on April 28, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of August 6, 2001. R. 11, 131-33, 181. Following denial of his application initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 29, 2015. R. 28-61, 62, 68. In addition to Plaintiff, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. See R. 11, 22, 47-60. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 24, 2015. R. 8, 13-23. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-4; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. This action for judicial review followed.


         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). In order to award benefits on a DIB application, the claimant must establish disability on or before his or her date last insured, rather than at some later date.

         20 C.F.R. § 404.131; Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2005. R. 11, 13. Therefore, the period under consideration is August 6, 2001, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2005, his date last insured. R. 11.

         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, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from August 6, 2001, through December 31, 2005. R. 13. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of dysfunction of major joints and osteoarthrosis and allied disorders. R. 13. At step three, the ALJ determined that 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. R. 14.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of his medically determinable impairments. R. 14-21; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, subject to the following limitations: “[Plaintiff] should not lift below 18 inches from the floor, perform kneeling, squatting, crawling or ladder climbing.” R. 14. At step four, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work and that transferability of job skills was not a material issue. R. 21.

         At step five, the ALJ considered whether there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy through the date last insured that Plaintiff-in view of his age, education, work experience, and RFC-could have performed. Taking into consideration the hearing testimony of a vocational expert regarding the extent to which Plaintiff's limitations erode the occupational base of light, unskilled work, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform light, unskilled occupations such as counter clerk and ticket seller, and could perform sedentary, unskilled work such as bench hand, all of which offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 22. On this basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 6, 2001, through the date last insured. R. 22.


         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).


         In this action, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) erred in determining Plaintiff's RFC, including by (a) failing to properly evaluate a physician's opinion that Plaintiff is limited to one hour of walking per workday, and (b) failing to adopt a limitation that Plaintiff requires the use of a cane; and (2) consequently erred in relying on testimony from ...

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