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Berdahl v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 3, 2019

COMMISSIONER of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The claimant Sharon Berdahl requests judicial review of a denial of benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She appeals the Commissioner's decision and asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she was not disabled. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED and the case REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         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 h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] 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]

         Section 405(g) limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to two inquiries: whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “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). See also Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). But the Court must review the record as a whole, and “[t]he substantiality of the 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 fifty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 36). She completed high school and one year of college-level work and has worked as a nurse assistant and medical records clerk (Tr. 26, 230). The claimant alleges inability to work since September 12, 2015, [2] due to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, low back pain, hip and right leg pain, breathing issues, and right shoulder pain (Tr. 229).

         Procedural History

         On September 29, 2015, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Her application was denied. ALJ John W. Belcher conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 18, 2017 (Tr. 15-27). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         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 residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), i. e., she could lift/carry/push/pull up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, and stand/walk and sit up to six hours each in an eight-hour workday, but that she could only occasionally climb stairs/ramps/ladders/ropes/scaffolds, as well as stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and reach above the head with the right arm. He further found she could use foot controls frequently with the right leg, but that she could only have occasional exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, toxins, gases, and poor ventilation. Finally, he found she could do simple and routine tasks, allowing for unskilled work, provided that she have only superficial contact with co-workers and supervisors (contact similar to that a grocery clerk might have with co-workers and supervisors), and that she cannot have contact with the public (Tr. 19). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because she there was work she could perform in the economy, e. g., food product sorter, inspector/hand packer, or small product assembler (Tr. 26-27).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) improperly assessing her pain with respect to her subjective complaints, and (ii) failing to account for all her limitations, specifically her use of a cane and limitations related to her feet, hips, and joints. Because the ALJ does appear to have ignored probative evidence regarding the claimant's impairments, the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of lumbosacral pain, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral hips, right leg pain, chronic pulmonary insufficiency, right shoulder derangement, depression, and anxiety (Tr. 17). The relevant medical evidence demonstrates that the claimant reported pain in her lower back, radiating to her hip, as well as weakness in the back and legs (Tr. 320). In October 2014, which was prior to the alleged onset date, the claimant reported worsening back pain and trouble with her gait, including being unsteady at times and at risk of falling (Tr. 414). In May 2015 she was unable to perform tandem walking, heel walking, or toe walking because she ambulated with a cane, her Romberg test was positive, and when demonstrating conventional walking she was unable to turn quickly and had a painful gait (Tr. 332). In ...

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