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Noble v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 6, 2019

JEANNIE L. NOBLE, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Jeannie L. Noble 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 set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and the case is 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 fifty-two years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 28, 178). She completed twelfth grade, and has worked as a tag and title clerk, a carpet layer helper, and a production assembler (Tr. 19, 239). The claimant alleges inability to work since her application date of September 1, 2015, due to rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, back problems, anxiety, depression, neck problems, memory problems, a learning disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) (Tr. 238).

         Procedural History

         On September 1, 2015, the claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. The application was denied. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II, conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated December 22, 2016 (Tr. 11-21). 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. § 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

          The ALJ made his decision at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except that she could not climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; she could only frequently stoop, kneel, and crouch; and she was unlimited in the ability to balance and crawl. He further found that she was limited to unskilled work which was simple, repetitive, and routine; supervision must be simple, direct, and concrete; interpersonal contact with supervisors and co-workers must be on a superficial work basis; she should only have occasional workplace changes; she must have normal regular work breaks; and she should have no contact with the general public (Tr. 15). The ALJ thus concluded that the claimant could return to her past relevant work as a production assembler (Tr. 19). Additionally, he found that she could perform the jobs of housekeeping cleaner and bakery assistant worker (Tr. 20).


          The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) improperly rejecting a treating physician opinion and two consultative examiners' opinions, and (ii) failing to properly account for her rheumatoid arthritis in formulating her RFC. 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 that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, history of rheumatoid arthritis/osteoarthritis, affective disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorder (Tr. 13). The medical evidence relevant to the claimant's mental health treatment demonstrates that the claimant sought treatment for her mental health at Carl Albert Community Mental Health Center in August 2014, reporting depression, anxiety, and loss of concentration (Tr. 398). However, in December 2014, a treatment note from Little Axe Health Center in Norman, Oklahoma indicates that the claimant reported being hooked on painkillers but refused psych treatment or drug abuse counseling, and the provider was suspicious that it was a drug- seeking encounter (Tr. 441). The claimant also received treatment from Dr. Peter Alan Rao in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he prescribed her pain medications beginning August 20, 2015 (Tr. 527-548, 561-572). Dr. Rao's monthly treatment notes indicate ...

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