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McClain v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 25, 2019

KATHY L. MCCLAIN, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Kathy L. McClain 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 should be 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Svcs., 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. 599). She has an eighth-grade education, and has worked as a hospital cleaner, apartment manager, and janitor (Tr. 600, 614). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since November 15, 2011, due to restless leg syndrome, diverticulitis, and depression (Tr. 164).

         Procedural History

         On January 19, 2012, 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. 120-32). Her applications were denied. ALJ James Bentley conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated January 2, 2014 (Tr. 13-24). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed in No. CIV-15-308-SPS and remanded with instructions to properly consider the opinion of treating physician Dr. Nielson.[2] On remand, ALJ James Bentley held a second administrative hearing and determined the claimant was not disabled through January 2, 2014, in a written opinion dated June 23, 2017 (Tr. 573-87). The claimant did not file written exceptions with the Appeals Council, so the ALJ's June 2017 opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner 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 a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), i. e., she could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit/stand/walk six hours in an eight-hour workday with a sit-stand option; frequently, but not constantly, reach, handle, and finger with her right upper extremity; and occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; but could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds (Tr. 577-78). The ALJ further found that the claimant could understand, remember, and apply simple and detailed instructions; concentrate and persist for extended periods in order to complete simple and detailed work tasks with routine supervision; and maintain superficial relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public (Tr. 578). The ALJ 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., cashier II, small products assembler, and conveyor line bakery worker (Tr. 585-86).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her subjective statements. More specifically, she contends that the ALJ improperly relied on her failure to seek medical and psychological treatment to discount her subjective statements. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in evaluating the claimant's subjective symptoms, and the decision of the Commissioner must therefore be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found that the claimant's mild degenerative changes of the cervical spine and right shoulder, disorders of the lumbar spine, restless leg syndrome, right upper extremity fracture with surgical repair, hypertension, diverticulosis, major depressive disorder, and alcohol abuse were severe impairments (Tr. 576). The relevant medical evidence related to the claimant's physical impairments reveals that prior to March 2013, her treatment largely consisted of emergent care for acute problems including chest pain, knee pain, flank and abdominal pain, and a rib fracture (Tr. 357-58, ...

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