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Willis v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 26, 2018

DANIEL H. WILLIS, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Daniel H. Willis 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 Commissioner's decision is hereby 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 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 July 7, 1986, and was twenty-eight years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 43). He completed high school while attending special education classes, and has worked as a cashier II and deli worker (Tr. 43, 61). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since October 1, 2012, due to overall pain in his body; pain in his ankle, leg, and back; a learning disability; depression; a heart condition; and high blood pressure (Tr. 227).

         Procedural History

         On January 28, 2013, 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 February 20, 2013 (Tr. 208-17). His applications were denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated March 30, 2015 (Tr. 19-33). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's 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 that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b) except he could stand/walk for four hours daily; sit no more than six hours daily; and occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl (Tr. 24). The ALJ found the claimant must also be allowed to alternately sit and stand every thirty minutes or so throughout the workday for the purpose of changing positions, but without leaving the workstation (Tr. 24). Due to psychologically based limitations, the ALJ found the claimant was limited to unskilled work (work which needs little or no judgment to do simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period of time) with occasional understanding, remembering, and completing detailed instructions (Tr. 24). The ALJ further found the claimant's supervision must be simple, direct, and concrete, and his interpersonal contact with supervisors and co-workers must be incidental to the work performed, e. g., assembly work, but due to problems with concentration, persistence, and pace, he must not be required to work at fast-paced production line speeds, and must only occasionally adapt to workplace changes (Tr. 24). 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 that he could perform in the national economy, e. g., small product assembler and electrical accessory assembler (Tr. 32-33).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to resolve a conflict between the vocational expert's (“VE”) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”); (ii) failing to make sufficient findings as to whether work existed in significant numbers; (iii) failing to account for his severe shoulder impairment in formulating the RFC; (iv) including limitations in the RFC that precluded light work; (v) failing to determine he met Listing 12.05C; and (vi) failing to properly assess his credibility. The Court finds that the ALJ did err in determining the claimant's RFC, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, major joint dysfunction, and borderline intellectual functioning, but that his obesity, tachycardia, hypertension, and dyslipidemia were non-severe (Tr. 22). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant presented to Pushmataha County Hospital on September 9, 2010, and reported pain in his right ankle after falling off a curb (Tr. 374-81). An x-ray taken that day revealed a small ...

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