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Bowden v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 21, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Jutanna Dawn Bowden 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-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 160). She has a tenth grade education and no past relevant work (Tr. 48, 221). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since an amended onset date of June 23, 2015, due to mental illness and seizures (Tr. 37, 220).

         Procedural History

         On June 23, 2015, the claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85 (Tr. 10, 160-65). Her application was denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated February 21, 2017 (Tr. 10-22). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion represents the Commissioners' 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 step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), except she could understand, remember, and sustain concentration to carry out simple, repetitive tasks with routine supervision; have occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors, but no work-related contact with the general public; adapt to a routine work setting; and needed to avoid unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery (Tr. 15). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because there was work she could perform in the national economy, i. e., laundry worker and inspector/packer (Tr. 20-21).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider the mental health evidence prior to her alleged onset date. She asserts that such failure caused the ALJ to err when he discounted her subjective statements and when he formed 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 schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality traits, methamphetamine abuse in remission, seizure disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and hepatitis C, and the nonsevere impairment of headaches (Tr. 13). The relevant medical evidence prior to the claimant's alleged onset date reveals that she received inpatient mental health treatment at Griffin Memorial Hospital in November 2014 due to suicidal ideation and impulses to self-harm (Tr. 315-18). The claimant was stabilized on medication and discharged with diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder, amphetamine dependence, and cannabis abuse (Tr. 316-18). Thereafter, the claimant attended a follow-up appointment with Dr. William Mings at Carl Albert Community Mental Health Center (“CACMHC”) on December 17, 2014, and reported that her mood continued to be unstable and that she had been out of her medications for two weeks (Tr. 405-06). Dr. Mings noted the claimant's mood and affect were depressed, anxious, and irritable (Tr. 405). The claimant did not attend further follow-up appointments at CACMHC, and was discharged on July 9, 2015, due to noncompliance (Tr. ...

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