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Gilchrist v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 16, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Ladonna Gilchrist 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, and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, id. §§ 1381-1383f. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 9, hereinafter “R. ”), [1] and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB and SSI applications on November 28, 2012, alleging disability beginning October 12, 2011. R. 11, 200-18, 247. Following denial of her applications initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 21, 2015. R. 31-53, 73-74, 105-06. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 29, 2015. R. 8-30.

         As relevant here, 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 since October 12, 2011, Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. R. 13. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of epilepsy and anxiety disorder. R. 13-18. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff's gastroesophageal reflux disease was a medically determinable but nonsevere impairment. R. 18. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's condition did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 18-19.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her medically determinable impairments. R. 19-23. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels” but with certain nonexertional limitations:

no more than occasional climbing of ramps/stairs; no climbing of ladders/ropes/scaffolds; needs to avoid exposure to hazards, moving mechanical parts, unprotected heights; no more than occasional handling, grasping, finger[ing], and feeling with the non-dominant left hand; and is limited to the performance of simple tasks and instructions.

R. 19-20. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. R. 23.

         At step five, the ALJ considered whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of her age, education, work experience, and RFC-could perform. R. 24-25. Relying upon the written interrogatory answers supplied by a vocational expert regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled occupational base caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, see R. 328-36, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform light, unskilled occupations such as sales attendant, children's attendant, and blood-donor-unit assistant, and that such occupations offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 24-25. Therefore, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period. R. 25.

         Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, and the unfavorable determination of the ALJ stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See R. 1-4; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.


         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 improperly considered the opinion of examining physician Matthew Sleziak, DO, and that this error resulted in Plaintiff's visual limitations being erroneously omitted from the RFC. See Pl.'s ...

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