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Clapper v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 9, 2018

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



         Plaintiff 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 denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR.__). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 18-34). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between her amended onset date of August 21, 2012 and her date last insured of December 31, 2015. (TR. 20). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Clapper had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; obesity; osteoarthritis; osteoporosis; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. (TR. 20). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 21).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Clapper retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant was able to occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant must have been allowed to sit/stand alternatively once per hour for five minutes each time. The work must have been limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, free of production rate pace.

(TR. 24). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (TR. 32). As a result, the ALJ made additional findings at step five. There, the ALJ presented several limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 65-66).Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 65-66). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Clapper was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 33-34).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred: (1) at step three and (2) in the consideration of certain evidence.


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation 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 will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         V. STEP THREE

         Ms. Clapper alleges that the ALJ “improperly considered critical medical evidence” which reflected that Plaintiff met Listing 1.04(A). (ECF No. 12:2-3). The Court disagrees.

         A. Criteria at Step Three

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment is “equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Secretary acknowledged as so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). If this standard is met, the claimant is considered per se disabled. Knipe v. Heckler, 755 F.2d 141, 146 (10th Cir. 1985). The question of whether a claimant meets or equals a listed impairment is strictly a medical determination. Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(c)(3)-(4), 404.1526(b). “The claimant has the burden at step three of demonstrating, through medical evidence, that his impairments “meet all of the specified medical criteria” contained in a particular listing. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. at 530 (emphasis in original). “An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Id.

         Once the claimant has produced such evidence, the burden is on the ALJ to identify and discuss any relevant listings. Fisher-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 733 n. 3. In doing so, the ALJ must weigh the evidence and make specific findings to support the step three determination. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d at 1009.

         B. Listing 1.04

         Listing 1.04 outlines the requirements to establish whether a presumptive disability exists in an individual with a disorder of the spine. Listing 1.04(A) requires that the claimant first establish that he has a disorder of the spine, “resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equine) or the spinal ...

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