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Cooper v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 3, 2019

SCOTTY A. COOPER, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Scotty A. Cooper requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). He appeals the Commissioner's decision 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[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 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: (1) whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997) [citation omitted]. The term “substantial evidence” requires “‘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). However, the Court may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion for that of the agency. See 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. 147, 724). He completed tenth grade and has no past relevant work (Tr. 175, 715). The claimant alleges inability to work since his protected filing date of May 21, 2013, due to anxiety, depression, mental breakdown, back problems, hip problems, problems with his right arm, and hepatitis C (Tr. 174, 698).

         Procedural History

         The claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85, on May 21, 2013. His application was denied. ALJ J. Frederick Gatzke conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated October 30, 2014 (Tr. 10-22). The Appeals Council denied review, but this Court reversed in No. CIV-15-61-RAW-SPS and remanded with instructions to properly consider the evidence in the record related to the claimant's mental limitations (Tr. 796-807). On remand, ALJ James Stewart held a second administrative hearing and again determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written decision dated January 3, 2018 (Tr. 696-717). The Appeals Council again denied review, so ALJ Stewart's written opinion is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant could perform a limited range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), with the additional limitations of: frequently handling, fingering, and feeling, as well as overhead reaching; only occasionally stooping, crouching, crawling, kneeling, balancing, and climbing ramps/stairs; and no climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds. Stooping should also be limited to picking up or otherwise manipulating objects that are at knee level or above. Additionally, he found that the claimant should have no exposure to concentrated levels of fumes, dusts, gases, odors, poor ventilation, or other respiratory irritants. As to his mental impairments, the ALJ found that the claimant could perform unskilled work consisting of simple and routine tasks with routine supervision that require only that he be able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. He found the claimant could maintain concentration and persist for two-hour periods during the workday with normally scheduled work breaks, over a 40-hour workweek, that the claimant could relate to supervisors and co-workers on a superficial work basis, and that he could adapt to a work situation. Further, he found that the claimant should work at his own workstation independently performing his own tasks, without having to directly interact with co-workers to perform those tasks; should have no contact with the general public as part of his work duties such that any contact would be incidental and superficial; should not work at jobs where changes in work routine occur on a regular basis or where changes in routine are regularly made under circumstances where there is usually little or no notice or opportunity to adjust. Finally, he found that due to mental health symptoms the claimant would have to leave work early or miss work entirely two to three times per year (Tr. 702). The ALJ then concluded that although he had no past relevant work to return to, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform, i. e., document preparer, sorter, or table worker (Tr. 715-716).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred: (i) by failing to properly account for his subjective complaints and pain, (ii) in failing to properly account for his global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) scores in the record, (iii) by failing to properly account for the opinion of his treating physician, and (iv) in failing to account for his severe impairments of obesity and migraine headaches. The undersigned Magistrate Judge finds these contentions unpersuasive for the following reasons.

         ALJ Stewart found the claimant had the severe impairments of residual effects of a right wrist fracture and non-union after a motor vehicle accident in 2003, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, morbid obesity, asthma (COPD), osteoarthritis, migraine headaches, opiate abuse, alcohol abuse, polysubstance abuse by history, major depressive disorder with and without psychotic symptoms, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, and personality disorder (Tr. 698). The relevant medical evidence reveals that Dr. Nelson Onaro regularly treated the claimant for back pain and anxiety between May 2015 and July 2016 (Tr. 350-366, 422-456, 466-494, ...

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