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Christopher v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 6, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Dennis Christopher, Jr. requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is 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 his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his 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 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-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 27, 154). He has two years of college and has worked as a customer service representative and home health aide (Tr. 32, 46, 169). The claimant alleges he has been unable to work since March 1, 2013, due to bipolar I disorder, social anxiety disorder, depression with psychotic feature, and obsessive compulsive disorder (Tr. 168).

         Procedural History

          On September 24, 2015, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 154-55). His application was denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated October 6, 2016 (Tr. 13-22). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion represents the Commissioners' final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

          The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), except he could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The ALJ further limited the claimant to semi-skilled work (work which requires understanding, remembering, and carrying out some detailed skills, but does not require doing more complex work duties); interpersonal contact with supervisors and coworkers on a superficial work basis; no contact with the general public; normal, regular work breaks; and only occasional workplace changes (Tr. 17-18). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was other work he could perform in the national economy, e. g., industrial cleaner, and laundry worker I (Tr. 20-21).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion of treating physician Dr. Teresa Farrow. The Court agrees, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found the claimant's morbid obesity, hypothyroidism, affective disorder, anxiety, and personality disorder were severe impairments, and that his hearing loss, tinnitus, bilateral nerve damage, hypertension, shortness of breath, and foot swelling were nonsevere (Tr. 15-16). The relevant medical evidence reveals that Dr. Farrow regularly treated the claimant from October 2014 through at least August 2016, the last treatment note in the record (Tr. 247-49, 263-67, 282-89, 311-21). Her diagnoses included, inter alia, bipolar disorder, depressed, severe, with psychotic features; panic disorder with agoraphobia; generalized anxiety disorder; social phobia; and obsessive compulsive disorder (Tr. 249). Dr. Farrow's treatment notes reflect that the claimant's symptoms waxed and waned, but she consistently noted he had a depressed and anxious mood, congruent affect, fair insight, and fair concentration (Tr. 247-49, 263-65, 282-84, 287-90, 311-16). Dr. Farrow also generally noted that the claimant's status was improving, however, she noted his status was worsening in June 2016 and she noted it was stable in August 2016 (Tr. 265, 284, 289, 313, 316).

         On June 20, 2016, Dr. Farrow completed a Medical Source Statement (“MSS”). She opined that the claimant would be absent from work about three or more days per month due to depression, anxiety, frequent suicidal ideations, no energy, no motivation, panic attacks, and occasional hallucinations and paranoia (Tr. 298). As to unskilled work requirements, Dr. Farrow opined that in a routine work setting, the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions, but could not make simple work-related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, or work situations; deal with changes; maintain concentration and attention for extended periods; handle normal work stress; or attend any ...

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