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Childers v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 11, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Anita K. Childers 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 fifty-six years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 242). She has a high school equivalent education and has worked as a housekeeper/cleaner, trailer component assembler, and cage cashier (Tr. 38, 40, 53). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since December 16, 2012, due to headaches, neck surgery, pain and numbness in her shoulder and arm, and depression (Tr. 242, 262).

         Procedural History

         On May 17, 2013, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 242-43). Her application was denied. ALJ Truett M. Honeycutt conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated August 29, 2016 (Tr. 18-29).[2] 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 four 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. § 404.1567(b), i. e., she could lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and walk two hours continuously for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for two hours continuously for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; and occasionally crawl, reach overhead bilaterally, and climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds (Tr. 23). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because she could return to her past relevant work as a casino cage cashier as performed in the national economy (Tr. 27-28).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (i) account for her headaches, neck pain, torticollis, obesity, and mental impairments when formulating the RFC; (ii) provide a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports the RFC; (iii) determine the mental demands of her past relevant work; and (iv) evaluate her subjective statements. The Court agrees that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the claimant's nonsevere mental impairments, 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 cervical disk disease status post remote fusion in 2002, class 1 obesity (body mass index of 32 at 63 inches tall and 183 pounds), and history of tension headaches, but that her depression and anxiety were nonsevere (Tr. 20-21). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant established care at Caddo Family Medical Clinic on February 17, 2014 (Tr. 488-89). At this initial appointment, she reported severe headaches that occurred three or four times per week (Tr. 488). Nurse practitioner Emily Love diagnosed the claimant with tension headache and prescribed medication (Tr. 488-89). The claimant presented to Dr. Lee on April 23, 2014, and reported consistent headaches, noting that she was keeping her three grandchildren and was under a lot of stress (Tr. 482-884). Dr. Lee diagnosed the claimant with tension headaches (Tr. 484). At a follow-up appointment with Dr. Lee on May 14, 2014, the claimant reported that she stopped taking her medication due to side effects and reported continued headaches a few times per week (Tr. 478-81). Dr. Lee diagnosed the claimant with generalized anxiety disorder and situational anxiety and prescribed an antidepressant (Tr. 480). After this initial diagnosis, ...

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