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Ashbrook v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 25, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Patricia Ashbrook 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 that 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-four years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 42). She has an associate degree and has worked as a dishwasher/janitor and counter attendant (Tr. 44, 65-66). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since an amended onset date of July 6, 2013, due to a chemical imbalance, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, stroke, motor vehicle accident, blockage, head injury, thyroid problems, and neuropathy (Tr. 39, 249).

         Procedural History

         On February 26, 2015, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85 (Tr. 20, 217-27). Her applications were denied. ALJ James Linehan conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated August 5, 2016 (Tr. 20-32). 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. §§ 404.981, 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. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c), with occasional bending, stooping, crouching, and crawling; standing and walking off and on occurs for six hours out of an eight-hour day with sitting occurring intermittently throughout the rest of the day; frequent pushing, pulling, and reaching overhead with both arms; and frequent gripping, grasping, and feeling (Tr. 26). The ALJ also found the claimant had the following nonexertional limitations: (i) limited to work with a Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”) level of two or less; (ii) could understand, remember, and carry out ordinary and/or routine written or oral instructions or tasks; (iii) could set realistic goals and make plans independently of others; and (iv) could interact appropriately with supervisors and coworkers, but could interact with the public only incidental to workplace requirements (Tr. 26). The ALJ then concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform in the national economy, e. g., laundry worker I and linen room attendant (Tr. 30-32).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to admit records from a prior decision, specifically treatment notes dated November 2009 through January 2011 and a 2011 consultative mental status examination, (ii) failing to order additional consultative examinations, (iii) failing to find her disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grids”), (iv) failing to include all of her exertional and nonexertional limitations in the RFC, (v) failing to perform a function-by-function assessment of the RFC, (vi) failing to account for her mental impairments, (vii) failing to properly consider her subjective statements, and (viii) finding she could perform the jobs of laundry worker I and linen room attendant. Because the ALJ failed to provide a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports the RFC at step four, the decision of the Commissioner must be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of diabetes, arthralgias, obesity in combination, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder, but that her hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and trigger finger were nonsevere (Tr. 23). The relevant medical record reveals that the claimant established care at Pushmataha Family Medical Center (“PFMC”) on August 30, 2012, and reported that she had been off her diabetes medications for approximately a year, had a fasting blood glucose level of 269, and had frequent urination, intense thirst, neck pain, dizziness, and fatigue for the past week (Tr. 345-49). Nurse practitioner Gerald Harper found no abnormalities on physical exam, but upon recording the claimant's history of head injury, he indicated that no fine or gross motor function was lost, however mental delay was apparent (Tr. 346). Mr. Harper diagnosed the claimant with diabetes mellitus, hypothyroid, pre-syncope, and hypertension (Tr. 346). By December 2012, the claimant was doing well and had no complaints (Tr. 354). On March 12, 2013, a physical examination revealed a left carotid bruit that the claimant declined to evaluate further due to the cost and how well she was doing, and Dr. Ellis noted she seemed to understand well enough to make a proper decision (Tr. 357). At a follow-up appointment on June 12, 2013, Dr. Ellis noted the claimant's diabetes was very nicely controlled, and that she was alert, oriented, and pleasant, but seemed to have either stoic personality or simple thought processes (Tr. 362). The claimant was doing well and had no complaints in March 2014, and a depression screening was negative ...

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