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Whitaker v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 7, 2019

EVELYN D. WHITAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STEVEN P. SHREDER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The claimant Evelyn D. Whitaker 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 the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         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 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 forty-six years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 45, 152). She has a high school education and has worked as a box maker and poultry boner (Tr. 62-63, 191). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since an amended onset date of December 1, 2014, due to back problems, leg pain, chest pain, high blood pressure, tension headaches, and anemia (Tr. 52, 190).

         Procedural History

         On November 20, 2014, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 152-58). Her application was denied. ALJ Charles Walters conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated July 22, 2016 (Tr. 12-27). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion represents the Commissioner's 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 the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), i. e., she could lift, carry, push, or pull less than ten pounds frequently and up to ten pounds occasionally; sit for six hours in an eight-hour day; and stand/walk for two hours in an eight-hour day (Tr. 19). The ALJ also limited the claimant to simple work-related decisions, and simple, routine, repetitive tasks not at a production rate pace (Tr. 19). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was other work she could perform in the national economy, e. g., addresser, telephone question clerk, and assembler (Tr. 24-26).

         Review

         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred when assessing the RFC by failing to: (i) consider her severe obesity, (ii) consider the combined effects of her nonsevere impairments, and (iii) provide limitations for her moderate difficulties in social functioning. The Court finds these contentions unpersuasive for the following reasons.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, ischemic heart disease, angina, depression, anxiety, and obesity (Tr. 16). The relevant medical evidence reveals that Dr. Jon Maxwell treated the claimant for depression on December 20, 2012 (Tr. 353-54). Additionally, Dr. Maxwell treated the claimant for back pain from February 2013 through March 2014 (Tr. 338-52). Dr. Maxwell consistently found tenderness in the claimant's lumbar region and noted that she had difficulty standing from a sitting position on two occasions (Tr. 338-52). A lumbar spine MRI conducted on March 8, 2013, revealed a 2-3mm disc bulge, disc desiccation, mild bilateral neural foraminal narrowing, and early facet arthritis at ¶ 4/5, and mild degenerative facet hypertrophic arthritic changes at ¶ 5/S1 causing mild bilateral neural foraminal ...


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