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Tiger v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 3, 2019

JASON TIGER, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Jason Tiger requests judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for benefits under the Social Security Act. The claimant appeals the decision of the Commissioner and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision should be AFFIRMED.

         Social Security Law and Standard of Review

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” Id. § 423 (d)(2)(A). Social security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[1]

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court's review is limited to two inquiries: first, whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence; and, second, whether the correct legal standards were applied. Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997) [citation omitted]. The term substantial evidence has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to require “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). The Court may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion for that of the agency. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, the Court must review the record as a whole, and “[t]he substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); see also Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01.

         Claimant's Background

         The claimant was forty-five years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 115, 758). He completed high school, and has worked as a janitor (Tr. 142, 750). The claimant alleges inability to work since an alleged onset date of September 1, 2006, due to a back injury, diabetes, chronic chest pain/discomfort, hypertension, left leg discomfort, fatigue, and shortness of breath (Tr. 141).

         Procedural History

         On August 24, 2010, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. His applications were denied. Following an administrative hearing, ALJ Trace Baldwin found that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated December 12, 2011 (Tr. 11-22). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed in No. CIV-13-258-SPS and remanded the case with instructions to properly consider the claimant's obesity, as well as all other impairments, severe and nonsevere, in combination. On remand, ALJ James Bentley held a second administrative hearing and again determined that the claimant was not disabled, in a written opinion dated December 16, 2015 (Tr. 726-751). The Appeals Council again denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1581.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the ability to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), i. e., that he could lift/carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit for up to six hours, and stand/walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. Additionally, he found the claimant could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds, and that he could frequently, but not constantly, handle and finger bilaterally. He further found the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, odors, and poorly ventilated areas. Finally, he found that the claimant required a sit/stand option, defined as a temporary change in position form sitting to standing and vice versa, with no more than one change in position every twenty minutes and without leaving the workstation so as not to diminish pace or production (Tr. 731). The ALJ concluded that even though the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform, i. e., small product assembler, inspector packer, and electric accessory assembler (Tr. 750-751).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to properly evaluate his RFC and his credibility, (ii) failing to follow this Court's remand instructions, and (iii) failing to account for his worsening condition. None of these contentions are ultimately persuasive, and the decision of the Commissioner should therefore be affirmed.

         On remand, the ALJ found the claimant had the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, obesity, COPD, hypertension, mild congestive heart failure, high cholesterol, lumbar degenerative disc disease, and severe sleep apnea, as well as the nonsevere impairment of chronic inactive gastritis (Tr. 729). The medical evidence in the record generally reflects that the claimant's weight ranged from 270 to 312, and he frequently weighed over 300 pounds (Tr., e. g., 220, 431, 935, 1003). He largely received treatment at WeWoka Indian Health Center, and relevant records reflect the claimant was hospitalized December 14-19, 2010, for an acute exacerbation of his COPD (Tr. 448). He was admitted with shortness of breath and leg pain, and heart failure and deep vein thrombosis were ruled out (Tr. 451, 645-646, 649-650). On July 4, 2011, the claimant went to Holdenville General Hospital's ER with complaints of shortness of breath and was assessed with pulmonary edema and obstructive sleep apnea (Tr. 675). A frontal view of the chest was performed, and the impression was that, when correlated with his ...

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