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Perez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 26, 2018

ROSA M. PEREZ, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Rosa M. Perez 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 the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and the case 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[.]” Id. § 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.[1]

         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 July 12, 1988, and was twenty-six years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 218, 222). She has a high school education, and has worked as a hostess and waitress (Tr. 79). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since September 15, 2009, due to depression, social anxiety, and ulcerative colitis (Tr. 258).

         Procedural History

         On January 17, 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85 (Tr. 218-27). Her applications were denied. ALJ J. Frederick Gatzke conducted an administrative hearing and found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated November 21, 2014 (Tr. 24-37). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c) except that she was limited to no more than incidental contact with the general public, and detailed, but not complex, work instructions (Tr. 29). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work in the national economy that she could perform, i. e., janitor, laundry worker I, and hand packager (Tr. 35-37).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly analyze: (i) the opinions of state agency psychologists James Sturgis, Ph.D., and Laura Lochner, Ph.D, and (ii) the opinions of state agency physicians Dr. C.K. Lee and Dr. Laurence Ligon. The Court agrees that the ALJ did not properly assess the opinions of Dr. Sturgis and Dr. Lochner.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of ulcerative colitis, paranoid type schizophrenia, subchronic state; bipolar I disorder, single manic episode, severe, without psychotic features; depression; and anxiety (Tr. 26). He determined that the claimant's headaches, foot/ankle pain, right knee pain, hip pain, and mild left convexity scoliosis were non-severe (Tr. 27). The medical records as to the claimant's physical impairments reveal that she presented to the Medical Center of Southeastern Oklahoma Emergency Department (“MCSO”) for gastrointestinal issues, including abdominal pain, bloody stool, nausea, and/or vomiting, on numerous occasions between June 2008 and January 2012 (Tr. 406-834). At each emergent care visit, ...

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