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Matlock v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

February 20, 2019

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



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The Commissioner has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further administrative development.

         I. Administrative History and Agency Decision

         In her application, Plaintiff alleged she was disabled beginning on January 2, 2014. (AR 18, 179). Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to a back injury, a right arm/wrist injury, depression, migraines, and neck pain. (AR 225). Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. (AR 106-110, 115-121).

         Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 18, 2017. (AR 122-123). Plaintiff appeared and testified at an administrative hearing conducted on October 13, 2017. (AR 29-73). Plaintiff testified concerning her usual daily activities, symptoms, functional abilities, medications, and medical treatment. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. (AR 65-69).

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process, required by agency regulations, to determine whether Plaintiff had been disabled at any time during the relevant period. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (explaining process); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (AR 18). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe, medically determinable impairments of a spinal disorder and a history of right arm surgery. (AR 18). The ALJ found Plaintiff had the non-severe medically determinable impairments of migraines and depression. (AR 18). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (AR 19-20).

         At the next step, the ALJ considered the medical and nonmedical evidence in the record and determined Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except [Plaintiff] can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently climb ramps and stairs; frequently balance, stoop, knee, crouch, or crawl; and frequently use the right upper extremity for handling. [Plaintiff] is limited to jobs which can be performed while using a cane or motorized wheelchair for ambulation, and she can have no exposure to hazards, such as hazardous moving machinery, raw chemicals or solutions, and unprotected heights.

(AR 20). At step four of the sequential evaluation the ALJ relied on the hearing testimony of the VE, who, in turn, relied on the description of Plaintiff's past relevant work contained in the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). After considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a customer service representative. (AR 23, 65-68).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision on April 3, 2018. (AR 6-10).[1] Therefore, the ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009).

         II. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff raises two claims in support of reversing the Commissioner's decision. Specifically, Plaintiff argues the ALJ (1) failed to adequately consider the impact of Plaintiff's migraine headaches when assessing the RFC, and (2) inappropriately relied upon the finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments were non-severe to justify the lack of any work-related mental limitations in the RFC. Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 20) at 5-11.

         III. General Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is 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); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quotations and citations omitted). The ‚Äúdetermination of whether the ALJ's ruling is supported by substantial evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Consequently, ...

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