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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 14, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Dannell Williams brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, id. §§ 1381-1383f. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 10, hereinafter “R. ”) and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.[1]


         Plaintiff protectively filed her applications for DIB and SSI on October 1, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2014. R. 20, 185-92, 225. Following denial of Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing. R. 36-62, 121-29, 132-37. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 16, 2016. R. 20-31.

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for disability benefits. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of February 1, 2014. R. 22. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, moderate obstructive sleep apnea, angina pectoris without ischemic heart disease, and obesity. R. 22-25. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 25-26.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her impairments. R. 26-29. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work subject to the environmental restriction that Plaintiff “should avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as fumes[, ] odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation.” R. 26; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b) (defining “light work”). At step four, relying on hearing testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a customer service representative. R. 29-30.

         Continuing to step five, the ALJ considered whether there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff-in view of her age, education, work experience, and RFC-could perform. Relying on the framework provided in the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, the ALJ made the alternative finding that Plaintiff's nonexertional environmental limitations had little or no effect on the unskilled light occupational base and, thus, Plaintiff likewise would be found “not disabled.” R. 30-31.

         The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 1, 2014, through the date of the decision. R. 31. The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-6; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. This action for judicial review followed.


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether correct legal standards were applied. Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, ” including any evidence “that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings, ” “to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (internal quotation marks omitted). While a reviewing court considers whether the Commissioner followed applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court does not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008).


         In this action, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in considering certain medical evidence: specifically, opinions from physicians Clayton Royder, DO, and Adonis Al-Botros, MD. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 17) at 6-13. Additionally, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have included in the RFC restrictions related to Plaintiff's depression, edema, and incontinence. See Id. at 13-19.

         A. Whether the ALJ erred in considering Dr. Royder's opinion

         Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ erred in failing to adopt certain findings in the opinion of Dr. Royder, one of Plaintiff's treating physicians. See Pl.'s Br. at 6-7. Dr. Royder completed a Mental Status Form, in which he opined, as relevant here, that Plaintiff can “respond to work pressure, supervision and coworkers” “if medicated.” R. 411 (Ex. 4F, at 2). Additionally, Dr. Royder recorded Plaintiff's diagnosis as “bipolar, uncontrolled.” R. 411. The ALJ gave this opinion “great weight.” R. 24.

         Plaintiff argues that Dr. Royder's diagnosis and reference to medication indicates that Plaintiff is “not under control” and that “medication appears to be an issue whose resolution is required for work.” Pl.'s Br. at 7. Plaintiff argues that she is, therefore, unable to work. See Id. It is not the diagnosis, however, but resultant functional limitations that determine disability, and there is nothing in Dr. Royder's opinion that evidences an inability to perform work-related functions. See Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 301 (10th Cir. 1988) (noting that the diagnosis of major depression did not establish disability where nowhere in the report did the physician “indicate that [claimant's] depression was so severe as to render him unable to perform the duties of his past relevant work”); accord Madridv. Astrue, 243 Fed.Appx. 387, 392 (10th Cir. 2007). Indeed, as set forth above, Dr. Royder found that Plaintiff is capable of working if medicated. See R. 411. And, as Plaintiff noted, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “recent mental health notes reflect[] improvement of [Plaintiff's] symptoms with medication.” R. 24 (citing Ex. 8F (R. 686-717); Pl.'s Br. At 6 (citing R. ...

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