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York v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 19, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]



         Plaintiff, Joseph Evan York, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Administration's final decision finding he was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Commissioner has filed the Administrative Record (AR) [Doc. No. 14], and both parties have briefed their respective positions.[2] For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         I. Procedural Background

         On March 24, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits. See AR 16. The Social Security Administration denied the application initially and on reconsideration. AR 86, 99. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision dated November 22, 2016. AR 13-30. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR 1-6. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of this final agency decision.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (explaining five-step sequential evaluation process); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ first determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 11, 2014, the alleged onset date. AR 18.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of osteoarthritis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), degenerative disc disease of the back, degenerative joint disease of the left knee, coronary artery disease, and obesity. AR 18-20.[3] At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 20-21.

         The ALJ next determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), concluding:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform a less than full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). [Plaintiff] can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand or walk for two out of eight hours; sit for six out of eight hours; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb stairs and ramps; and occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, and stoop. [Plaintiff] must avoid even moderate exposure to fumes, odors, dust, and gases. [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and extreme humidity.

AR 21-24. The ALJ determined Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a sales manager. AR 24. In the alternative, and relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform-telemarketing representative, customer complaint clerk, and order clerk. AR 24-25. The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. AR 25.

         III. Issues Presented for Judicial Review

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of a treating physician, improperly determined Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work, and committed reversible error at step five. The Court finds the ALJ did not commit error with regard to her handling of the opinions of the treating physician or Plaintiff's past relevant work. Because the ALJ did not err in finding Plaintiff was not disabled at step four, the Court does not reach the last point of error.

         IV. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 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) (quotation 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). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court does not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quotations and citations omitted).

         V. Analysis

         A.The ALJ's Weighing of Dr. Nickels' Opinion

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of Dr. Terry Nickels, D.O., a treating physician. Pl.'s Br. 13-17. Dr. Nickels found that Plaintiff had severe limitations on his ability to lift, sit, walk, and perform manipulative activities. AR 23, 382-389. He also found Plaintiff had environmental limitations and would miss more than four days of work per month. Id.

         The ALJ gave Dr. Nickels' opinions little weight, stating:

[T]hey are inconsistent with the medical record which shows that [Plaintiff's] lungs are clear to auscultation and that [Plaintiff] has full strength in all muscle groups. Moreover, although Dr. Nickels opined [Plaintiff] would have problems with asthma attacks at least twice per month, there does not appear to be any evidence of recent COPD exacerbations or asthma attacks consistent with the opinion that [Plaintiff] would miss more than four days of work per month, other than subjective reports made by [Plaintiff]. Likewise, despite such extreme limitations to sitting and standing/walking less than two hours each within an eight-hour day, as well as “rarely” lifting less than 10 pounds per day, [Plaintiff] had received limited treatment to his knee and back other than medication, and there is little objective evidence in the file ...

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