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Hitchcock v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 30, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Before the Court is the Report & Recommendation (“R&R”) (Doc. 18) of United States Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn on review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying the Plaintiff, Margaret Sue Hitchcock, disability benefits. Judge Cohn recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Mr. Vann filed a timely Objection (Doc. 19) to the R&R, and he requests that the Court “reverse and/or remand this matter for proper consideration.” (Doc. 19 at 7). Reviewing the Objection de novo, the Court has considered the Administrative Record (“Record”) (Doc. 12), the parties' briefs, the R&R, Plaintiff's Objection, and the Commissioner's Response (Doc. 20), and concludes that the Commissioner's determination should be affirmed and the R&R should be accepted.

         I. Background

         On June 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2012. (R. 22). These claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.). A hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) was held on September 15, 2014, and the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled on November 13, 2014. (R. 22, 32).

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had two severe impairments: history of a right wrist fracture and history of a seizure disorder. (R. 24). He determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairments of anxiety and a history of substance abuse, considered singly and in combination, were non-severe. (R. 25). In analyzing Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ applied the “special technique” required by the regulations and rated Plaintiff's limitations in “four broad functional areas.” See Mushero v. Astrue, 384 F. App'x 693, 694 (10th Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)(2), 416.920a(b)(2)). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild limitations in two functional areas: daily living and concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 25-26). He found that she had no limitation in social functioning and that she had experienced no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (Id.). Although Plaintiff testified to memory loss, the ALJ found no objective evidence in the medical records to support this impairment. (R. 26).

         As Plaintiff did not allege that any particular impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment, the ALJ proceeded to the next step of the evaluative process. (R. 26). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work. He found that she could lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, stand/walk about 6 hours in an 8-hour work day, and sit about 6 hours in an 8-hour work day, but that she should avoid hazards such as heights and open machinery. (R. 26-27). As a result of this RFC determination, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past work as a day care worker or waitress. (R. 30). Alternatively, the ALJ found that she could perform other jobs in the national economy, such as dishwasher or dietary aide. (R. 31).

         Plaintiff objects to the R&R on several grounds, which will be addressed below.

         II. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), “[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” The Court's task of reviewing the Commissioner's decision involves determining “whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “It is ‘more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)). The Court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Martinez v. Barnhart, 444 F.3d 1201, 1204 (10th Cir. 2006) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)).

         III. Specific Objections

         A. Mild Difficulties in Concentration, Persistence, or Pace

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred by allegedly failing to address Plaintiff's mild limitations in daily living and concentration, persistence, or pace in his RFC analysis and hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”). (Doc. 19 at 1).

         “[A] conclusion that the claimant's mental impairments are non-severe at step two does not permit the ALJ simply to disregard those impairments when assessing a claimant's RFC and making conclusions at steps four and five.” Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1068-69 (10th Cir. 2013). Yet, this Court finds that the ALJ in this case did not disregard Plaintiff's mental impairments after finding them non-severe at step two. Instead, at step four, the ALJ specifically discussed the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms caused by Plaintiff's mental impairments. (R. 29). He noted Plaintiff's testimony that she lives alone with her dog and is able to care for their needs. (Id.; see R. 42). He noted that she takes care of her friend's children, ages 3 and 11, when he is at work. (R. 29; see R. 53). He also noted Plaintiff's mother's assertions that Plaintiff has no mental problems, that she can pay attention a regular amount of time, and that she crochets, spends time with others, shops, counts change, has no trouble with personal care, and does not need reminders for medication. (R. 29; see R. 222-29). The ALJ also gave great weight to the state agency medical consultants' opinions regarding the non-severity of Plaintiff's mental impairments. (R. 29-30; see R. 99-100, 111-12).

         The Court finds this discussion “satisfied the ALJ's obligation at step four to provide a more detailed assessment of [Plaintiff's] ability to complete various job functions as part of determining her RFC.” Wells, 727 F.3d at 1069. Moreover, “[t]he ALJ's finding of a moderate [or mild] limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace at step three does not necessarily translate to a work-related functional limitation for the purposes of the RFC ...

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