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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 12, 2019

JOEL JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Gary M. Purcell, Judge

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner denying her application for supplemental security insurance (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-434. Defendant has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the following reasons, it is recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. Administrative History and Final Agency Decision

         Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on January 22, 2014, alleging disability beginning June 15, 2013. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the hearing was held on July 27, 2016. AR 716-730. An impartial vocational expert (“VE”) appeared telephonically. Because Plaintiff had additional medical records to submit, the ALJ held the record open for 20 days, and then submitted written interrogatories to the VE. AR 947-951. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on July 12, 2017. AR 193-211.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations to determine whether Plaintiff had been disabled at any time during the relevant period.[1] See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (explaining process); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since the date she filed her application for SSI. AR 195. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of status post mastectomy and peripheral neuropathy status post chemotherapy; status post right ankle fracture; osteoarthritis of the left knee; plantar fasciitis of the left heel; chronic pain syndrome; hypertension; pancreatitis; cholecystitis; depression; anxiety; and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). AR 195. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. AR 196-197.

         At step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ formulated Plaintiff's RFC:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for up to a total of 2 hours per 8-hour workday; sit for up to a total of 6 hours per 8-hour workday; occasionally push and/or pull, including the operation of hand and foot controls; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; frequently balance; occasionally stoop, kneel and crouch; never crawl; and only occasionally work above shoulder height. The claimant must not work at unprotected heights, around dangerous moving equipment or machinery, or on uneven or unstable working surfaces. Mentally, the claimant is able to understand, remember, comprehend, and carry out simple work-related instructions and tasks. She can work with supervisors and coworkers on a superficial working basis, and she cannot work with the general public. She is able to adapt to routine changes in the working environment.

AR 198.

         After thoroughly reviewing the medical evidence of record, the ALJ relied on interrogatory answers from the VE, who, in turn, relied on the description of Plaintiff's past relevant work contained in the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) to determine whether Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work. AR 947-951. Taking into account Plaintiff's age- 45-which is classified as a “younger individual, ” her education, her work experience, and her RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work. AR 209. At step five, however, the ALJ again relied on the VE's answer to interrogatories and found Plaintiff could perform other sedentary, unskilled jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy including surveillance-system monitor (DOT No. 379.367-010) which is classified as sedentary, unskilled work with an SVP of 2. The VE stated there are approximately 135, 120 such jobs available in the national economy. The VE also identified the job of assembler (DOT No. 734.687-018), also classified as sedentary, unskilled work with an SVP of 2. According to the VE, there are approximately 251, 670 assembler jobs in the national economy. The third sedentary, unskilled job the VE identified is that of hand bander (DOT No. 920.687-018) with approximately 705, 660 jobs available in the national economy. AR 210. The ALJ determined the VE's job descriptions do not conflict with information in the DOT. AR 210.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's unfavorable decision to the Social Security Appeals Council, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review AR 1-7. Therefore, the ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481; Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009). This appeal followed.

         II. Issues Raised on Appeal

         Plaintiff raises two issues in this appeal. First, she challenges the Commissioner's step-five findings. S e c o nd, s h e ass e rts th e Co m missioner's limiting her to “unskilled work” did not sufficiently account for her symptoms related to PTSD.

         III. Stan ...

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