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Anderson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 25, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Cynthia L. Anderson 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 applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, id. §§ 1381-1383f. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 10, hereinafter “R. ”), [1] and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB and SSI applications on July 11, 2013, alleging disability beginning June 26, 2013. R. 13, 162-73, 202. Following denial of her applications initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 21, 2015. R. 28-52, 53-93, 96-104. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 28, 2015. R. 13-27.

         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. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 26, 2013, the alleged disability-onset date. R. 15. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of chronic low and thoracic back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, right shoulder degenerative joint disease, depression, and anxiety. R. 15-16. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's condition did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 16-18.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her medically determinable impairments. R. 18-21. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform medium work, with the following limitations: “sit for six hours and stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday; no over the shoulder reaching with the right upper extremity; frequently handle, finger, feel, and grip; and, limited to simple and detailed tasks and instructions.” R. 18.

         At step four, the ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) and found that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a Utility Clerk. R. 21; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(1), (2); id. § 416.960(b)(1), (2). The ALJ alternatively found at step five that Plaintiff could perform the light unskilled occupation of Food Cashier II and that this occupation offers jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 21-22.

         The ALJ therefore determined that Plaintiff had not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period. R 22; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f), .1560(b)(3); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (f), .960(b)(3). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, and the unfavorable determination of the ALJ stands as the Commissioner's final decision. R. 1-6; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.


         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 considers whether the Commissioner followed 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).


         In this action, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's finding of nondisability as inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC determination-specifically, the limitation within the RFC to “stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday.” R. 18; see Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 16) at 8-11. According to Plaintiff, this two-hour limitation is irreconcilable with the performance of medium or light work, thus undermining the ALJ's step-four and step-five findings that Plaintiff is capable of fulfilling the stated light occupations. See Pl.'s Br. at 8-11.

         At step four, the ALJ made the determinative findings that Plaintiff had past relevant work as a Utility Clerk and could return to that work. R. 21. Accordingly, the Court begins (and ends) its analysis with the question of whether the ALJ's step-four findings are supported by substantial evidence and by the application of correct legal standards. See Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (“If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.”); Murrell v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1388, 1389 (10th Cir. 1994) (“[T]he integrity of a step-four finding is not compromised in any way by the recognition that step five, if it were reached, would dictate the same [or a different] result.” (alteration in original)).

         I. Whether the ALJ's Step-Four Conclusion Is Supported ...

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