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Hitsman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 13, 2018

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



         The claimant Katrina Hitsman requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby 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 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 April 15, 1964, and was forty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 55). She has a tenth grade education, and has worked as a restaurant manager (Tr. 55, 75). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since March 30, 2011, due to depression (Tr. 176, 197).

         Procedural History

         On April 27, 2011, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 176-82). Her application was denied. ALJ David Engel conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated December 14, 2012 (Tr. 29-43). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's 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 step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium, light, and sedentary work, except that she was unable to climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds, or work in environments where she would be exposed to unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery parts (Tr. 34). The ALJ found that the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple to moderately detailed instructions in a work-related setting, and could interact with co-workers and supervisors under routine supervision (Tr. 34). The ALJ then concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work that she could perform in the national economy, e. g., final inspector, collator, semiconductor bonder, and printed circuit board taper (Tr. 41-43).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly analyze her credibility. The Court agrees, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of depression and allied disorders (Tr. 32). The relevant medical records reveal that Sue Rollins, a nurse practitioner at Hope Community Services, Inc., regularly treated the claimant for major depressive disorder from February 2008 through March 2012 (Tr. 243-76, 327-29, 351-59). Ms. Rollins's treatment notes reflect that the claimant's depression waxed and waned, but that she consistently reported job-related depression between November 2010 and March 2011 (Tr. 243, 249, 252, 255, 258, 275). From August 2011 through March 2012, the claimant also attended counseling sessions ...

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