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Marilyn P. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 28, 2019

MARILYN P., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Jodi F. Jayne, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Marilyn P. seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claims for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act 9 (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, and 1382c(a)(3). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) & (3), the parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge.

         For reasons explained below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision denying benefits and remands for further proceedings. Any appeal of this decision will be directly to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

         I. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994)). 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.” Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotations omitted). The Court must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, the Commissioner's decision stands so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).

         II. Procedural History and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, then a 52-year-old female, applied for Title II benefits on August 26, 2014, and applied for Title XVI benefits on November 4, 2015, alleging a disability onset date in both applications of April 16, 2014. R. 280. Plaintiff claimed that she was unable to work due to disorders including a heart attack, neck problems, and back disc problems. R. 471. Plaintiff's claims for benefits were denied initially on May 27, 2015, and on reconsideration on September 25, 2015. R. 358-362; 364-366. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ conducted the hearing on August 16, 2016. R. 280, 298-325. The ALJ issued a decision on November 10, 2016, denying benefits and finding Plaintiff not disabled because she was able to perform her past relevant work. R. 280-291. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed. R. 1-6; ECF No. 2.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of April 16, 2014. R. 282. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cerebrovascular accident/myocardial infarction with three stents; degenerative disc disease; asthma; obesity; general anxiety disorder; and major depressive disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments of such severity to result in listing-level impairments. R. 283-284.

         The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's testimony as follows: Plaintiff said she cannot work due to problems stemming from a heart attack, neck problems, and back disc problems. These problems combined with medication side effects interfere with her ability to stand, walk, sit, lift, perform postural movements, concentrate, and complete tasks. She experiences occasional chest pains, angina, shortness of breath, and fatigue from her heart condition. Plaintiff stated that she has asthma and treats it with a nebulizer, but that exercise, anxiety, and exposure to environmental irritants exacerbates her condition. She uses a cane when walking, can lift four pounds, walk approximately five minutes with her cane, sit for ten minutes, and stand for ten minutes. Plaintiff said pain interferes with her sleep, requires her to lie down sixty percent of the day, and interferes with her ability to concentrate. R. 285-286, 302-321.

         With respect to the objective medical evidence, the ALJ first summarized Plaintiff's hospitalizations in April and September of 2014. On both occasions, Plaintiff reported chest pains and underwent heart catheterizations and the placement of stents. The ALJ further discussed emergency room records dated June 16, 2015, which revealed Plaintiff presented with complaints of retrosternal tightness with nausea, sweating, and shortness of breath without palpitations, dizziness, or weakness. Id. Nitroglycerin tablets and a dose of Ativan completely relieved Plaintiff's symptoms, and an EKG showed normal sinus rhythm. Id. The ALJ noted that the remainder of Plaintiff's cardiology examinations showed “benign results.” Id. The ALJ also discussed Plaintiff's reports of chronic back pain, in the spring of 2016, to Plaintiff's treating physician Martin Cooper, M.D. Dr. Cooper examined Plaintiff and found trace edema, and decreased range of motion in her lumbar spine with pain. R. 287, 944, 947.

         With respect to the medical opinion evidence, the ALJ gave great weight “with one exception” to the opinion of Plaintiff's cardiologist, Anthony Haney, M.D. R. 287-288, see 923-925.[1] The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Cooper's opinion, which imposed more severe physical and mental limitations than Dr. Haney's, explaining it was inconsistent with Dr. Haney's opinion, and that Dr. Haney's was “more consistent with the medical record.” R. 288. The ALJ assigned no weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's chiropractor, Colin Quigley, D.C., because it was inconsistent with the record and Dr. Haney's opinion. Id. The ALJ also gave great weight to the opinion of consultative examiner David Wiegman, M.D., who found mostly normal range of motion with “slightly decreased flexion, extension and rotation of [Plaintiff's] cervical spine.” Id. The ALJ contrasted Dr. Wiegman's opinion with others finding a need for substantial time off task and listed Dr. Wiegman's opinion as further evidence to discount the opinions of Dr. Cooper and Mr. Quigley. Id. The ALJ also afforded great weight to the state agency medical consultant opinions, who made similar findings to Dr. Haney. R. 289. The ALJ noted that later developed evidence, including Dr. Haney's opinion, allowed the ALJ to “expand upon [the agency doctors'] opinion[s] to reference the claimant's requirement to use a cane and the limitation to occasional postural movements.” Id. Finally, the ALJ gave little weight to the state agency psychological consultants' non-severe mental findings, because they did not “have the benefit of new and material evidence or personal examination” of Plaintiff. Id.

         The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work as follows:

No lifting or carrying more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk for up to six hours and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour work day; occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl; she can perform simple and detailed tasks; no exposure to more than a normal level of gases, fumes, dusts, noxious odors, poor ventilation, or pulmonary irritants when normal is defined as a setting found in a typical office or commercial building; she requires a cane when ambulating.

R. 285. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has past relevant work as an administrative clerk (light exertion; semi-skilled; SVP 4; DOT 219.362-010). R. 290. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an administrative clerk as generally performed and as she actually performed it. Id. The ALJ made no alternative step five findings. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was ...

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