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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 25, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting 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 AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.


         On October 21, 2015, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (TR. 12). On June 7, 2016, Ms. Williams applied for disabled widow's benefits. (TR. 12). Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (TR. 12). Subsequent to Ms. Williams' request for an administrative hearing, her claim for disabled widow's benefits was escalated to the hearing level to be heard in conjunction with her other claims. (TR. 12). Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision on all three claims. (TR. 12-23). 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 & 416.920.[1] At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 21, 2015, her alleged onset date. (TR. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Williams had the following severe impairments: obesity and disorder of the lumbar spine. (TR. 15). 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. 18).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Williams had retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform “light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she can frequently stoop, crouch, and crawl. (TR. 19).

         At the administrative hearing, a vocational expert (VE) described Ms. Williams' past relevant work as site manager, (performed at the sedentary level)[2] and transportation director, (performed at the light level).[3] The VE also testified that an individual with Ms. Williams' RFC could perform these jobs. (TR. 66). Accordingly, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Williams was not disabled based on her ability to perform her past work. (TR. 22-23).


         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 the ALJ erred in her consideration of Ms. Williams' urinary incontinence and subjective allegations.


         At the December 21, 2016 administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she suffered from urinary incontinence which had “gotten worse over the last two or three years.” (TR. 59). According to Ms. Williams, upon complaints of the incontinence worsening, doctors prescribed medication. (TR. 59). Indeed, the record reflects that Plaintiff's physician prescribed Oxybutynin for the incontinence on March 6, 2016. (TR. 507). Even with medication, however, Plaintiff testified that she suffered “accidents” 3-4 times per week. (TR. 60).

         At step two, the ALJ concluded that the incontinence was not a severe impairment. (TR. 16). In doing so, the ALJ provided four rationales:

• Plaintiff wore protective undergarments only “sometimes, ” because she was unable to afford the same;
• Plaintiff failed to report symptoms until April 2016;
• In September 2016, Plaintiff reported that her medication was effective in controlling her symptoms; and
• Plaintiff stated that her medication had not increased, despite her allegations that the incontinence had worsened over a period of 2 to 3 years.

(TR. 15-16). Ultimately, at step two, the ALJ stated that the incontinence was “non-severe in nature, as there is no indication that [Plaintiff] would have more than mild, if any work-related limitations secondary to same.” (TR. 16). Thereafter, the ALJ made no further mention of Plaintiff's incontinence and did not include any work-related limitations for the impairment in the RFC.

         Ms. Williams' argument regarding the ALJ's consideration of the urinary incontinence is two-fold: (1) that the ALJ erred in failing to find the urinary incontinence as a severe impairment at step two and (2) that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the incontinence or include any related limitations at step four. (ECF No. 17:14-17). The Court rejects the step two argument, but concludes that the ALJ erred at step four.

         A. Step Two

         Plaintiff argues a lack of substantial evidence supporting each of the ALJ's rationales for deeming the incontinence as “non-severe.” (ECF No. 17:14-17). But even assuming the truth of Ms. Williams' argument, such error would be deemed harmless based on the ALJ's finding of additional severe impairments at step two. “[O]nce an ALJ finds that a claimant has at least one severe impairment, he does not err in failing to designate other disorders as severe at step two, because at later steps the agency ‘will consider the combined effect of all the claimant's impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity.'” Barrett v. Astrue, 340 Fed.Appx. 481, 484 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523). Consequently, the undersigned “can easily dispose of” Plaintiff's step-two challenge. Oldham v. Astrue,509 F.3d 1254, at 1256 (10th Cir. 2007). ...

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