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Taylor 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 Janelle Pearl Taylor 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 set forth 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 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-seven years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 270, 301). Her education includes up to two years of college, and she has worked as a door-to-door salesperson, home health aide, kitchen aide, and kennel attendant (Tr. 253, 482). The claimant alleges she has been unable to work since January 1, 2013, due to major depressive disorder, chronic fatigue, microvalve prolapse, high blood pressure, anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, anxiety about being in public, sleep apnea, chronic back and knee pain, obesity, tachycardia, and thyroid problems (Tr. 481).

         Procedural History

         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, on November 3, 2015. Her applications were denied. ALJ Luke Liter held an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated July 14, 2017 (Tr. 242-255). 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, 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 had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), i. e., she could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and stand/walk up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, with the additional limitations of only occasionally climbing ramps/stairs, balancing, kneeling, stooping, crouching, and crawling, as well as avoiding climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds. He further found that she could not tolerate exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. He imposed the psychologically-based limitations that the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple and some complex tasks, but that tasks should be repetitive and routine, and that she should avoid contact with the public while contact with supervisors and co-workers should be superficial, defined as brief and cursory (Tr. 246-247). The ALJ then concluded that the claimant was not disabled because there was work she could perform, e. g., housekeeper, electronics assembler, and packer inspector (Tr. 253-255).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate her mental impairments, specifically with regard to the opinions of consultative examiner Dr. Theresa Horton, and counselor Marva Heissmann, LPC, LMFT, RN, and that her mental impairments preclude her from maintaining a job or performing substantial gainful activity. The undersigned Magistrate Judge agrees that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the evidence of record, and the decision of the Commissioner should therefore be reversed.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of unspecified personality disorder, depressive disorder, obesity, and chronic pain (Tr. 244). The medical evidence related to the claimant's mental impairments reveals that she received counseling for a number of years and was hospitalized on at least two occasions for suicidal ideation. Treatment records from the claimant's counselor indicate she was largely treated at Redbird Smith Health Center by Nurse Practitioner Melissa Horn and Licensed Professional Counselor Marva Heinemann. Treatment notes with Nurse Practitioner Horn indicate the claimant was homeless in March 2013, and that she went in crying and “out of control” (Tr. 631). Ms. Heinemann accepted her for therapy that month, noting that the claimant had signs and ...

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