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Branch v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 28, 2018

BRIAN K. BRANCH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Brian K. Branch brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 11, hereinafter “R.__”), [1] and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the case for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for SSI on February 3, 2012. R. 11, 35, 162-71. Plaintiff ultimately alleged February 3, 2012, to be his disability-onset date. R.11, 35. Following denial of his application initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff and his attorney attended a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 4, 2014. See R. 32-83. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 16, 2015, and the SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-5, 8-10, 11-25; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. This action for judicial review followed.


         As relevant here, a person is “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine entitlement to disability benefits. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 3, 2012, the alleged onset date. R. 13. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “Scheuermann's kyphosis; right hand carpal tunnel syndrome; right ulnar neuropathy, and depressive disorder (schizotypal personality traits).” R. 13. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 13-15.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of his medically determinable impairments. R. 15-23. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following additional limitations:

[T]he claimant can: frequently lift/carry/push/pull less than 10 pounds and occasionally lift/carry/push/pull 10 pounds. The claimant can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and stand/walk for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, kneel, crouch, crawl, and stoop. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, or balance. The claimant can perform simple tasks with routine supervision. The claimant can have no public contact and cannot perform customer service work. The claimant is able to interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers on a superficial work basis. The claimant is able to adapt to a work situation.

R. 15; see 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a) (defining “sedentary” work). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work and that transferability of job skills was not a material issue. R. 23.

         At step five, the ALJ considered whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of his age, education, work experience, and RFC-could perform. R. 23-24. Taking into consideration the hearing testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled sedentary occupational base that is caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as document specialist, surveillance-system monitor, and touch-up screener, all of which offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 24. On this basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 3, 2012, through the date of the decision. R. 24.


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether correct legal standards were applied. Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, ” including any evidence “that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings, ” “to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (internal quotation marks omitted). While a reviewing court ...

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