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Collins v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

February 28, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Megan Collins requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED and the case REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         Social Security Law and Standard of Review

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act “only if h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” Id. § 423 (d)(2)(A). Social security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[1]

         Section 405(g) limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). See also Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). But the Court must review the record as a whole, and “[t]he substantiality of the evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01.

         Claimant's Background

         The claimant was twenty-seven years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 46). She completed twelfth grade, and has worked as a medical assistant, personal care aid, car hop, and retail sales clerk (Tr. 21, 266). The claimant alleges inability to work since April 1, 2015, due to bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and diabetes (Tr. 265).

         Procedural History

         On April 17, 2015, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Her applications were denied. ALJ B.D. Crutchfield conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated June 13, 2017 (Tr. 12-23). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made her decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. She found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but that she had nonexertional limitations as follows. For her diabetes, she was to avoid unprotected heights, moving machinery, and other hazards. Additionally, the ALJ determined that the claimant could perform simple tasks with routine supervision, relate to supervisors and peers on a limited (occasional) work basis, and adapt to a work situation, but that she could not relate to the general public (Tr. 16). Finally, she found that the claimant should have no accessibility to medications that are not prescribed to her (Tr. 16). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because she there was work she could perform in the economy, e. g., janitor, laundry worker, and production assembler (Tr. 21-23).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to properly account for her substance abuse, and (ii) failing to properly assess her credibility. As to the first contention, the claimant further contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider her impairments in light of the Listings and failed to properly account for all her impairments, specifically her mental impairments and their contributions to noncompliance. Because the ALJ does appear to have ignored probative evidence regarding the claimant's impairments, the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed.

         The ALJ determined at step two that the claimant had the severe impairments of affective disorders and substance addiction disorders in partial remission (Tr. 15). The ALJ also found that the claimant's obesity was nonsevere, and listed other impairments alleged by the claimant (bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, diabetes, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder) without commentary as to severity or any further analysis (Tr. 15). The relevant medical evidence demonstrates that the claimant has a long and repeated history of inpatient mental health treatment for suicidal ideation and depression, sometimes related to substance abuse and sometimes not. Counsel has attached as an exhibit to the Opening Brief a “Suicide Timeline, ”[2] which indicates the claimant underwent a total of 137 days of inpatient treatment between 2013 and 2017, including two inpatient admissions in 2013, three inpatient admissions in 2014, six inpatient admissions in 2015 (including one admission for twenty-four days), seven inpatient admissions in 2016, and two inpatient admissions by April 2017. See Docket No. 22, Ex. 1 & Administrative Record. An August 2013 discharge diagnosis assessed the claimant with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, and insomnia (Tr. 360). Her bipolar disorder diagnosis was repeated throughout ...

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