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Cornelison v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 26, 2018

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Sharon K. Cornelison 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 that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in determining she 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 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[.]" 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 December 17, 1951, and was sixty-two years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 66). She has a high school education, and has worked as a splicer (Tr. 67, 81). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since an amended onset date of April 19, 2011, due to low back problems, diabetes, liver problems, and high blood pressure (Tr. 154, 189).

         Procedural History

         On October 21, 2013, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Her application was denied. ALJ Douglas S. Stults held an administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated March 5, 2015 (Tr. 28-38). 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.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step four of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). The ALJ then concluded that, through the claimant's date last insured, December 31, 2011, she was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as a splicer (Tr. 37-38).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ failed to properly: (i) consider new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council, (ii) account for her non-severe impairments in formulating her RFC, and (iii) assess her credibility. The Court finds these contentions unpersuasive for the following reasons.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, and hypertension, but that the residual effects of her December 2010 left shoulder arthroscopy and degenerative disc disease (status post lumbar discectomy and laminectomy) were non-severe (Tr. 30-32). The medical record reveals that the claimant often reported a history of depression and/or anxiety and that she was currently taking an anti-depressant medication to her providers, but there is no specific mental health diagnosis until September 2013 (Tr. 413). On September 13, 2013, the claimant reported to Dr. Toridio Vasquez that her mental health had been gradually improving, her symptoms were relieved by medication, and ...

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