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Graham v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 13, 2018

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



         The claimant Vickie L. Graham 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 set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is hereby REVERSED and the case is 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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 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 26, 1972, and was forty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 35). She has a high school education and vocational training in medical coding and terminology, and has worked as a billing clerk, claims examiner, and patient scheduler (Tr. 49, 232). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since August 20, 2013, due to a fractured spine, problems with her hands, and pain in her back, neck, and legs (Tr. 37, 231).

         Procedural History

         On December 17, 2013, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Her application was denied. ALJ Lantz McClain held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated December 7, 2015 (Tr. 13-22). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written decision represents 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), except that she should avoid work above shoulder level and could frequently use her hands for repetitive tasks such as keyboarding (Tr. 16). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as a claims examiner and patient scheduler, and alternatively because there was work she could perform in the national economy, i. e., food and beverage order clerk, and electronics worker (Tr. 21-22).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ failed to properly account for her non-severe mental impairments in formulating her RFC. More specifically, she asserts that the ALJ ignored probative evidence related to her mental impairments, summarized the mental health evidence without analysis, and did not consider the combined effects of all of her impairments at step four. She further claims that such errors negatively impacted the ALJ's analysis of her ability to perform the mental demands of her past relevant work as well as his hypothetical question to the VE. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in his analysis of the claimant's non-severe impairments and his decision is not supported by substantial evidence.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of status post injury to cervical spine with surgery, history of knee pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as the non-severe impairments of depression and anxiety (Tr. 15). The record reveals the claimant was involved in a motor vehicle accident on August 21, 2013, which caused a laminar fracture at ¶ 6, and a ligamentous injury resulting in instability at ¶ 6, C7 (Tr. 491-97). On August 23, 2013, she underwent a fusion at ¶ 5 to T1 with pedicle screw instrumentation (Tr. 491-97). The medical evidence related to the claimant's non- severe mental impairments reveals that her primary care physician, Dr. Timothy Sanford, treated her for depression with anxiety from August 2012 through February 2014 (Tr. 539-71, 606-17). On examination, Dr. Sanford generally found the claimant had an appropriate mood and affect, and good insight and judgment, however, he did note her mood and ...

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