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Belcher v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

July 31, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, 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 applications for 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 REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS for further administrative findings.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits. Following an administrative hearing on February 10, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued fully favorable decision. (TR. 161- 169). On its own motion, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the same ALJ for further proceedings. (TR. 172-177). Following a second administrative hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 15-29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the second 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 & 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 20, 2013, his alleged onset date. (TR. 19). At step two, the ALJ determined Mr. Belcher had the following severe impairments: affective disorder; anxiety disorder; ischemic heart disease; tendonitis of the shoulders; mild intellectual disability; obesity; and right knee arthritis. (TR. 19). 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 Mr. Belcher retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that his ability to perform the full range of light work is diminished by nonexertional limitations. He can reach overhead with the right arm frequently. He is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions but not detailed instructions. His ability to work is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple, work-related decisions, and with few, if any, workplace changes. He cannot interact with the public. He cannot perform work involving reading and writing in the vocational context.

(TR. 24) (footnote omitted). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Belcher could not perform his past relevant work. (TR. 27). Thus, at the hearing, the ALJ presented the limitations set forth in the RFC to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 59). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 59-60). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and at step five concluded that Mr. Belcher was not disabled based on his ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 28-29).


         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).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges error in the consideration of: (1) two medical opinions, (2) the Plaintiff's subjective allegations, and (3) the Medical-Vocational Guidelines.


         Mr. Belcher alleges legal error in the ALJ's evaluation of opinions from: (1) treating physician, Dr. Kenneth Schaufelberger and (2) examining physician, Dr. Alison Walgama. The Court finds reversible error in the consideration of these opinions.

         A. ALJ's Duty to Evaluate Medical Opinions

         An ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion in the record, although the weight given each opinion will vary according to the relationship between the disability claimant and the medical professional. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.927(d). In determining what weight to accord any ...

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