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Riley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 21, 2019

CHELSEA D. RILEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Chelsea D. Riley 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 supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 10, hereinafter “R. ”), [1] and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the case for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her SSI application on October 10, 2013, alleging disability beginning September 8, 1998. R. 15, 314-20. Following denial of her application initially and on reconsideration, several hearings were conducted before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). R. 42-88, 89-95, 96-131, 132, 141. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 27, 2016. R. 12-41.

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine entitlement to disability benefits. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since she had filed her application on October 10, 2013. R. 17. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the medically determinable impairments of: history of hydrocephalus with ventriculoperitoneal shunt placement with multiple revisions; asthma and various allergies; degenerative disc disease; multiple arthralgias, with complaint of hip and shoulder pain, status post right shoulder surgery in 2011; headaches; history of extraocular muscle surgery at the age of five, with residual absence of depth perception; pain disorder with psychological components; cognitive disorder; and expressive language disorder. R. 17-27. The ALJ found that these impairments were severe “singly and/or in combination.” R. 17. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's condition did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). R. 27-29.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her medically determinable impairments. R. 29-33. The ALJ found:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that [Plaintiff] is further limited to frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, balancing, and climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds, as well as limited to frequent use of the right upper extremity for reaching overhead. [Plaintiff] also should not perform tasks requiring depth perception. In addition, [Plaintiff] should avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme heat, cold, vibration, as well as occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants. [Plaintiff] also should avoid more than occasional exposure to workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery. [Plaintiff] also is limited to performing simple and routine task[s] consistent with unskilled work, with learning of task[s] provided through verbal instruction and demonstration.

         R. 29. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. R. 33.

         At 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. R. 34-35. Relying upon testimony provided by a vocational expert (“VE”) at the third hearing regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled light occupational base caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform unskilled light occupations such as basket filler, laundry bagger, and night cleaner, and that such occupations offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 34-35.

         The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant period. R. 35. Plaintiff's request for review by the SSA Appeals Council was denied, and the unfavorable determination of the ALJ stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See R. 1-5; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.


         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).


         Plaintiff raises several challenges to the denial of benefits, including the ALJ's failure to conduct a proper analysis and provide substantial evidence for her step-three finding. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 15) at 6-7, 12-13; Pl.'s Reply (Doc. No. 20) at 7-8. Because the Court concludes that remand is required by the ALJ's errors at step three, this decision does not address the additional challenges, as they “may be ...

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