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Potter v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 26, 2018

HARVEY D. POTTER, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Harvey D. Potter requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is hereby REVERSED and the case is 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 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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 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 August 10, 1971, and was forty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 168, 177). He has a high school equivalent education and vocational training as an emergency medical technician, and has worked as a first aid attendant, paramedic/emergency medical technician, fast food cook, and building maintenance worker (Tr. 33, 218). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since August 22, 2006, due to spinal nerve damage, partial right leg paralysis, a back injury, diabetes, nerve damage, and bipolar disorder (Tr. 168, 177, 217).

         Procedural History

         On May 21, 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and he applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85 on May 22, 2012 (Tr. 168-78). His applications were denied. ALJ Jodi Levine held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated November 28, 2014 (Tr. 21-34). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written decision represents 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 her decision at step four of the sequential evaluation. She found that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), and could understand, remember, and carry out simple and detailed instructions (Tr. 29). The ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled because he could return to his past relevant work as a first aid attendant (Tr. 33-34).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) account for his moderate difficulty in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; (ii) consider his severe obesity and non-severe lumbar spondylosis and in formulating his RFC; and (iii) analyze the state agency psychologists' opinion as to his moderate limitation in the ability to maintain social functioning. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in her analysis of the claimant's non-severe spondylosis at step four.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, obesity, and an affective disorder, as well as the non-severe impairment of spondylosis (Tr. 26). The relevant medical records reveal the claimant was incarcerated between 2006 and 2012. At a new intake physical examination on May 23, 2006, the claimant reported chronic low back pain from an injury he sustained in 1999 (Tr. 572). A lumbar spine x-ray taken that day revealed the possible presence of a pars defect at ¶ 5-S1, slight loss of alignment with slight subluxation of L5 on L4, and ...

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