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Cooper v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 14, 2018

MICHAEL COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CHARLES B. GOODWIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Michael Cooper 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 applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. Nos. 14, 15. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 10, hereinafter “R. ”) and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the matter for further proceedings.[1]

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for DIB on November 30, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of June 24, 2011. R. 9, 188-95, 229-30. Following denial of Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing. R. 34-76, 83-87, 89-91. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 11, 2015. R. 9-19. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-3; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. This action for judicial review followed.

         ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         As relevant here, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for disability benefits. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, .1520(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 24, 2011, the alleged onset date. R. 11. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: major depressive disorder, panic disorder, asthma, bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, allergies, and obesity. R. 11. 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 (the “Listings”). R. 11-12.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of his impairments. R. 12-17. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work subject to the additional limitations that Plaintiff:

should avoid even moderate exposure to dust, fumes, gases, and pulmonary irritants; [can] perform simple and routine tasks consistent with unskilled work involving no interaction with the general public and no more than occasional interaction with coworkers. [Plaintiff] can learn tasks through verbal instruction and demonstration.

R. 12; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) (defining “medium work”). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work and that transferability of job skills was not a material issue. R. 17-18.

         At step five, the ALJ considered whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of his age, education, work experience, and RFC-could perform. Taking into consideration the hearing testimony of a vocational expert regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled medium occupational base caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as production helper, rack loader, conveyor tender, hand bander, small-products assembler, and silver wrapper, all of which offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 18-19. On this basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 24, 2011, through the date of the decision. R. 19.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         ANALYSIS

         In this action, Plaintiff presents two claims of error: (1) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff's RFC, including by (a) failing to properly consider the limitations caused by Plaintiff's impairment of chronic migraine headaches, (b) failing to properly consider the limitations caused by Plaintiff's impairment of agoraphobia, and (c) failing to properly consider medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians; and (2) the ALJ erred at step three by improperly applying the “special technique” in evaluating whether Plaintiff's mental impairments met one or more Listings. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 18) at ...


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