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Griffin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 16, 2018

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



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner denying her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1382. Defendant has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR ___), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. Administrative History and Agency Decision

         In her applications, Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled beginning on October 1, 2013. (AR 21, 69, 274, 325). Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled due to a range of musculoskeletal impairments, pain associated with those conditions, depression, and anxiety. (AR 335). Plaintiff has an 11th grade education and previously worked as a rehabilitation clerk and a front desk receptionist. (AR 34, 95-96, 336). Plaintiff's medical record reflects that she has been treated for lumbar degenerative disc disease and other musculoskeletal impairments, depression, and anxiety. Notably, in February 2014, Plaintiff underwent a laminectomy and coccygectomy to address her musculoskeletal complaints. (AR 591-594).

         Plaintiff appeared at an administrative hearing conducted on July 22, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Angelita Hamilton. (AR 64-106). At this hearing, Plaintiff testified concerning her usual daily activities, symptoms, functional abilities, medications, and medical treatment. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. Following this hearing, Plaintiff requested a supplemental hearing to consider the impact of newly submitted medical records. (AR 398). Judge Hamilton convened a supplemental hearing on February 5, 2016, at which Plaintiff and a VE again testified. (AR 42-63).

         The ALJ issued a decision on April 15, 2016, finding that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of depression/bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder with PTSD symptoms and seizure-like events, degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, arthritis, and status post-coccygectomy. (AR 23).

         Following the agency's well-established sequential evaluation process for disability applicants, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (AR 24-25).

         At the next step, the ALJ considered the medical and nonmedical evidence in the record and determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at the sedentary exertional level with the following limitations: she could perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that do not require production rate assembly line pace and involve no more than occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the public. Further, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “must also be allowed to sit or stand alternatively at will up to 1X per hour for five minutes at a time.” (AR 26).

         Relying on the hearing testimony of the vocational experts and on the description of Plaintiff's past relevant work contained in the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles, and considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC for work, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work as a rehabilitation clerk and a front desk receptionist. (AR 34, 55-58, 96-99).

         At step five, however, the ALJ relied on the testimony from the VE and found Plaintiff was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy including document preparer, election clerk, and surveillance systems monitor.[1] (AR 34-35, 98-99).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of this decision. (AR 1-6). Therefore, the ALJ's decision reflects the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009).

         II. General Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The “determination of whether the ALJ's ruling is supported by substantial evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Consequently, [the Court must] remain mindful that evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citations, internal quotation marks, and brackets omitted).

         The Social Security Act authorizes payment of benefits to an individual with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. A disability is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.909 (duration requirement). Both the ...

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