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Gossett 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 Suzanne R. Gossett 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 forty-five years old at the time of the administrative hearing (Tr. 55). She completed twelfth grade, and has worked as a receptionist, janitor, teacher aide, carhop, and child care attendant (Tr. 38, 284). The claimant alleges inability to work since January 20, 2013, due to chronic pain syndrome, disorders of sacrum, atypical facial pain, lumbar radiculopathy, occipital neuralgia, other nerve root and plexus disorders, depression, Meniere's disease, and partial loss of hearing (Tr. 283).

         Procedural History

         On November 25, 2014, 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 April 10, 2012. The applications were denied. ALJ John W. Belcher conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 6, 2017 (Tr. 23-39). 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), i. e., she could lift/carry/push/pull ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently, stand/walk two hours each in an eight-hour workday, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, he imposed the additional limitations of being unable to climb ladders and scaffolds, and only occasionally able to climb stairs, balance, bend, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. Finally, he found that she could perform simple, routine and some complex tasks, allowing for semi-skilled work, and that she was able to perform work requiring superficial contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public (Tr. 30-31). The ALJ concluded that although the claimant could not return to her past relevant work, she was nevertheless not disabled because there was work she could perform, i. e., document specialist, addresser, and touch-up screener (Tr. 38-39).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to properly evaluate the consultative examination opinion of Dr. Denise LeGrand, (ii) failing to properly evaluate the treating physician opinion of Dr. Michele Bucholtz, and (iii) failing to properly assess her subjective complaints. The undersigned Magistrate Judge agrees with the claimant's first two contentions, and the decision of the Commissioner should be reversed.

         The ALJ determined that the claimant had the severe impairments of obesity, degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine status post fusion in 2010, degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine, chronic pain secondary to back and neck, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder, as well as the nonsevere impairments of hypertension and dyslipidemia (Tr. 28).[2] The relevant medical evidence demonstrates that the claimant underwent a lumbar spine fusion in 2010, and a few months later underwent instrumentation removal and a revision right-sided partial hemilaminectomy with partial medial facetectomy and foraminotomy (Tr. 473-479). The claimant continued to complain of back pain, and was diagnosed ...

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