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James v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 26, 2018

LISA MICHELLE JAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER TO GRANT PLAINTIFF'S APPEAL AND TO REVERSE AND REMAND DECISION OF COMMISSIONER

          Gerald B. Cohn United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for decision. Lisa Michelle James (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's appeal and REVERSES and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision in this case.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To receive di sability or supplemental security benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”), a claimant bears the burden to demonstrate 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).

         The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (setting forth the five steps in detail). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1064 at n.1. (10th Cir. 2013). If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See id. Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court's review is based on the record, and the Court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the [Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”)] findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. The Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision stands. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this is an appeal from a final administrative decision by an ALJ dated March 18, 2015 denying Plaintiff Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. (Tr. 13-23). At the time of that decision, Plaintiff was 57 years old (Tr. 10, 200), and she possessed a high school level education. (Tr. 34, 205). According to the ALJ and vocational expert (“VE”), she also possessed sedentary, skilled past relevant work as a customer service representative. (Tr. 22, 47). However, Plaintiff alleges she has been unable to do this or any other work since December 1, 2011, due to limitations imposed by a combination of mental and physical impairments, including depression and anxiety. (Tr. 13, 177-178, 181-186, 200, 204).

         III. ISSUES AND ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges two errors: (1) The ALJ committed reversible legal error by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence; and (2) the ALJ's RFC assessment, and specifically its lack of any mental limitations, was not supported by substantial evidence. (Pl. Br. at 5, Doc. 18).

         A. ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Evidence

         1.Opinions in the Record

          Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical opinions in the record, specifically from the consultative psychologist, Timothy D. Doty, Psy.D., and the state agency psychologists, Edith King, Ph.D. and “SKT, ” Ph.D. (Pl. Br. at 6-9). In the decision, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's background before evaluating the medical evidence:

The claimant has the following severe impairments: history of generalized arthralgia …
The claimant's medically determinable physical impairments of hypertension, hypothyroidism, moderate obesity, history of cholecystectomy, and a history of renal failure, resolved, considered singly and in combination, do not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental and physical work activities and are therefore non-severe …
The claimant's medically determinable mental impairments of depression and anxiety, considered singly and in combination, do not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental ...

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