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Gunther v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

July 17, 2019

DIANA GUNTHER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         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.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         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. 149-181). On review, the Appeals Council remanded the case for a second hearing. (TR. 190-191). Following another administrative hearing, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. (TR. 27-41). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the second decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         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 Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 20, 2010, her alleged onset date. (TR. 30). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Gunther had the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status-post bilateral surgical release in 2008; hypertension; osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees; osteoarthritis of the back; osteoarthritis of the right hip status-post right hip replacement; and degenerative joint disease of the right knee status post arthroplasty. (TR. 30). 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. 33).

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

[P]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except and meaning the claimant can lift/carry/push/pull 10 pounds occasionally, less than 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk for two hours in an eight hour workday; sit for six hours in an eight hour workday; frequently reach, handle, finger and feel bilaterally. In addition, the claimant requires the use of a cane in the left upper extremity for ambulation.

(TR. 33-34). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Gunther was unable to perform her past relevant work. (TR. 39). Thus, the ALJ proceeded to step five and presented the RFC limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 70). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 73-74). The ALJ adopted the VE's testimony and concluded that Ms. Gunther was not disabled at step five. (TR. 40).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         IV. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Ms. Gunther alleges: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating a treating physician's opinion, (2) the RFC failed to accommodate the use of a cane while standing, and (3) error at step five. (ECF No. 16:4-15).

         V. ERROR IN THE EVALUATION OF A TREATING PHYSICIAN'S OPINION

         As alleged by Ms. Gunther, the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of treating physician, Dr. Mark Winchester.

         A. The ALJ's Duties in Evaluating A Treating Physician's Opinion

         Regardless of its source, the ALJ has a duty to evaluate every medical opinion in the record. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) & 416.927(c). The weight given each opinion will vary according to the relationship between the claimant and medical professional. Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1215. For example, in evaluating a treating physician's opinion, the ALJ must follow a two-pronged analysis. First, the ALJ must ...


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