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Loper v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 26, 2018

TERRY G. LOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STEVEN P. SHREDER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The claimant Terry G. Loper 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 discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby AFFIRMED.

         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[.]” 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 January 8, 1961, and was fifty-three years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 120, 741). He has a high school education, attended college two years, and has worked as a unit operator (Tr. 734, 743). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since July 28, 2004, due to a neck injury and fusion at ¶ 5-7, vertigo, and muscle spasms (Tr. 145, 182).

         Procedural History

         On December 30, 2008, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. His application was denied. ALJ Trace Baldwin conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated August 19, 2010 (Tr. 10-18). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed the decision of the Commissioner in Case No. CIV-12-137-SPS, and remanded the case for further consideration of the claimant's vertigo and upper extremity numbness (Tr. 772-81). ALJ James Bentley conducted a second administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated November 3, 2014 (Tr. 689-713). The Appeals Council assumed jurisdiction and issued an opinion on July 14, 2016, that adopted the ALJ's November 2014 decision (including the denial of benefits), but revised it to make technical corrections (Tr. 667-70, 878-81). Thus, the Appeals Council's July 2016 decision is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), with frequent, but not constant, handling and fingering bilaterally; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, and crouching; never crawling, climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, or performing overhead work; and avoiding unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery (Tr. 693). Additionally, the ALJ determined that the claimant required a sit/stand option, defined as a temporary change in position from sitting to standing and vice versa, for the purposes of comfort, with no more than one change in position every twenty minutes, and without leaving the work area so as not to diminish pace or production (Tr. 693). The ALJ then concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform in the national economy, i. e., garment bagger, counter clerk, and garment sorter (Tr. 711-13).

         Review

         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) evaluate the opinions of treating physician, Dr. Archana Barve; and (ii) assess his credibility. The Court finds the claimant's contentions unpersuasive for the following reasons.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine status post fusion at the C5-6 and C6-7 levels, vertigo, and carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 691). The relevant medical records reveal that the claimant sustained an injury to his neck at work on December 11, 2003 (Tr. 320). After conservative treatment failed, he underwent an anterior cervical disc fusion of C5-7 on July 29, 2004 (Tr. 245, 281-82). At a follow-up appointment with Dr. Jeffrey Nees on November 16, 2004, the claimant reported that his condition had not significantly changed from his pre-operative status (Tr. 240). Dr. Nees stated the claimant “looked good radiographically, but was not clinically doing as well as expected, ” and prescribed a TENS unit (Tr. 240). On January 17, 2005, Dr. Nees noted the claimant should be doing well by all objective measures, but ...


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