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Brown v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 8, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Jaclyn Dawn Brown 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 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 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 thirty-six years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 146). She has a college education and has worked as a program aide, customer service representative, nursery school attendant, and cashier/checker (Tr. 165, 55). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since May 1, 2013, due to neuropathy, diabetes, bone pain, three partial toe amputations on her left foot, recurrent wounds on her left foot, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and reshaped bones in her feet (Tr. 146, 164).

         Procedural History

         On January 13, 2015, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 146-47). Her application was denied. ALJ Deirdre O. Dexter conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated May 13, 2016 (Tr. 13-26). 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 her decision at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation. She found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except she could lift, carry, push or pull up to five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally; could stand and/or walk up to two hours in an eight-hour work day; could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; could never use left foot controls or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and required the option to use a cane for ambulating (Tr. 18-19). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as a customer service representative, and alternatively because there was work she could perform in the national economy, i. e., food and beverage order clerk, new account investigator, and addresser (Tr. 24-26).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) determine whether her peripheral neuropathy met or equaled Listing 11.14, (ii) determine whether her skin infections met or equaled Listing 8.04, and (iii) account for her peripheral neuropathy in formulating the RFC. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in formulating the RFC, and the decision of the Commissioner must be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found the claimant had the severe impairments of obesity, diabetes mellitus, gastrointestinal disorder, degenerative disc disease, chronic infections of skin or mucous membranes, amputation, and a spine disorder; the nonsevere impairments of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, vitamin D deficiency, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder; and that her carpal tunnel syndrome was not medically determinable (Tr. 15-18). The relevant medical evidence reveals that on November 7, 2013, the claimant underwent a distal amputation of the first and second digits on her left foot due to an osteomyelitis infection in both digits (Tr. 422-23). On April 8, 2014, the claimant underwent a partial third toe amputation on her left foot due to a diabetic foot infection with osteomyelitis (Tr. 1168-69). Beginning in October 2014 and continuing through May 2015, the claimant was treated for an ulcer on the stump of her left hallux (Tr. 736-48, 752-836, 850-60, 1257-60, 1270-86, 1295-1300, 1309-17). Throughout this period, the claimant's treating physicians repeatedly noted that the claimant was noncompliant with treatment, and Dr. Jon Humphers specifically attributed her failure to heal directly to her failure to follow prescribed treatment (Tr. 741). On May 26, 2015, Dr. Humphers referred the claimant back to her primary care provider for further care as needed due to her lack of compliance with care and failure to keep appointments (Tr. 860). The claimant next sought wound care for her left foot on December 7, 2015, and ...

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