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Butts v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

June 6, 2019

CINDY D. BUTTS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Cindy D. Butts 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 application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 12, hereinafter “R. ”), [1] and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed and the matter remanded for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB application on December 11, 2014, ultimately alleging disability beginning October 27, 2014. R. 13, 184-90, 216. Following denial of her application initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 10, 2016. R. 13, 30-95, 123-27, 130-32. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 18, 2016. R. 10-24.

         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. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 27, 2014, the amended alleged disability-onset date.[2] R. 16. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, affective disorder, anxiety-related disorder, and personality disorder with cluster B traits. R. 16-17. 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. R. 17-19.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all of her medically determinable impairments. R. 19-22. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to

perform medium exertion work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c), with the following mental abilities: the claimant retains sufficient concentration, memory, and general cognitive abilities to understand, remember, and carry out “simple” and some, but not all, more complex tasks, involving objects and/or non-complex tasks. “Simple” tasks means unskilled entry-level SVP one work, which requires only a simple demonstration, and unskilled entry-level SVP two work, which can be learned in 30 days or less. The claimant can also perform “detailed” tasks involving objects or non-complex tasks that are SVP three and four semi-skilled jobs. The claimant retains adequate social skills to respond/relate appropriately to supervisors and coworkers on a “superficial work basis, ” i.e., brief, succinct, cursory, concise communication relevant to the task being performed. The claimant is aware of basic hazards and can adapt to a work environment that does not involve numerous changes in daily routines are [sic] work duties.

R. 19-20. At step four, the ALJ made no findings concerning Plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work. R. 22.

         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. 22-23. Taking into consideration the hearing testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) regarding the degree of erosion to the unskilled medium occupational base that is caused by Plaintiff's additional limitations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as laundry worker, automobile detailer, and hand packager, all of which offer jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 23. On this basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 27, 2014, through the date of the decision. R. 23. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, and the unfavorable determination of the ALJ stands as the Commissioner's final decision. R. 1-7; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.


         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).


         In her request for judicial review, Plaintiff argues that (1) the ALJ erred by failing to discuss evidence probative of Plaintiff's physical symptoms and impairments; (2) the RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record regarding Plaintiff's physical impairments. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. No. 16) at 11-23.

         A. The ...

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