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Copelin v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

July 15, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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 denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR.). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 12-31). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time, there existed a continuous 12-month period during which Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (TR. 14). At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Copelin had the following severe impairments: osteoarthrosis and dysfunction of major joints. (TR. 15). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 15).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Copelin retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand/walk, or sit for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and frequently perform bilateral handling.

(TR. 56). At the administrative hearing, the ALJ presented this RFC to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work. (TR. 83) With these limitations, the VE opined that Mr. Copelin was able to perform his past relevant work as a motor vehicle sales representative. (TR. 83). The ALJ adopted the VE's testimony and concluded that Mr. Copelin was not disabled at step four. (TR. 30).


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). Under the “substantial evidence” standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficien[t] evidence” to support the agency's factual determinations. Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). “Substantial evidence … is more than a mere scintilla … and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).


         On appeal, Mr. Copelin alleges: (1) the ALJ erred in her evaluation of evidence from two examining physicians, (2) the ALJ erred in her evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective allegations, and (3) the RFC lacked substantial evidence. (ECF No. 15:7-12).


         Mr. Copelin alleges legal error in the ALJ's evaluation of opinions from examining physicians Dr. Karen Perl and Dr. Karl Erwin.

         A. ALJ's Duty to Evaluate Medical Opinions

         An ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion in the record, although the weight given each opinion will vary according to the relationship between the disability claimant and the medical professional. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d). In determining what weight to accord any medical opinion, an ALJ must consider:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination;
(2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship;
(3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence;
(4) the consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole;
(5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and
(6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion.

Hamlin, at 1215, n. 7.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) & 416.927(c).

         Additionally, the ALJ may not selectively review any medical opinion and must provide a proper explanation to support her findings. SeeChapo v. Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1292 (10th Cir. 2012) (“We have repeatedly held that [a]n ALJ is not entitled to pick and choose through an uncontradicted medical opinion, taking only the parts that are favorable to a finding of nondisability.”); Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1010 (10th Cir. 1996) (the ALJ must “discuss[ ] the evidence supporting [the] decision” and must also “discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence [the ALJ] ...

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