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Andrell B. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 11, 2019

KELLY ANDRELL B., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Kelly Andrell B. seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) & (3), the parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge.

         For reasons explained below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision denying benefits and remands for further proceedings. Any appeal of this decision will be directly to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

         I. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994)). A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotations omitted). The Court must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, the Commissioner's decision stands so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).

         II. Procedural History and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff, then a 46-year-old male, applied for Title II benefits on August 11, 2016, alleging a disability onset date of May 25, 2016. R. 208. Plaintiff claimed that he was unable to work due to disorders including major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, uncontrolled tremors, and chronic body pain. R. 227. Plaintiff's claim for benefits was denied initially on November 29, 2016, and on reconsideration on February 10, 2017. R. 131-135; 137-143. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ conducted the hearing on August 9, 2017. R. 145-146, 45-81. The ALJ issued a decision on September 8, 2017, denying benefits and finding Plaintiff not disabled because he was able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 28-44. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed. R. 1-7; ECF No. 2.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2019, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of May 25, 2016. R. 33. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cervical spondylosis, and carpal tunnel syndrome in his right upper extremity. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments of such severity to result in listing-level impairments. R. 34-35.

         With respect to objective psychological evidence in the record, [1] the ALJ noted Plaintiff's complaints of “memory loss” and “PTSD” during a physical consultative examination performed October 6, 2016 by Jerry First, M.D.[2] R. 37. On October 10, 2016, Plaintiff reported to Timothy Doty, Psy.D., for a psychological consultative examination. R. 37, 416-424. Plaintiff explained to Dr. Doty that he was unable to work “because of problems related to social situations, anxiety, and post-traumatic reactions to deployment in war settings.” R. 37. The ALJ then recited Dr. Doty's visit impression summary verbatim:

Hi [sic] ability to engage in work-related mental activities appears moderate. His ability to understand work-related mental tasks appears intact, although there seems to be a neurocognitive affect, perhaps based on depression and anxiety that is preventing him from functioning fully in terms of understanding. His memory performance was moderate as briefly assessed on a mini mental status exam. His ability to sustain concentration in a real-world situation appears poor. His ability to persist in work-related tasks appears poor. Mr. Burks's mental status, at the time of this ce [sic], suggests that he is cognitively capable of managing disability benefits if he were to receive such. The veracity and reliability of the information gathered for the purpose of this CE does not seem to include intentional or misleading over/underreporting. Mr. Burks may benefit from additional evaluation/assessment to more fully understand the disparity between seemingly above average intellectual ability and uncommonly low performance on a mini mental status exam. He seemed to experience a great deal of difficulty with nominal cognitive tasks. Perhaps an increase to the intensity of psychotherapy and mental health assistance is necessary. Otherwise, it would be helpful to rule out concerns related to poor neurocognitive performance.

R. 37, 418 (emphasis in original). The ALJ then stated that Dr. Doty's “[d]iagnosis notes unspecified depression and anxiety disorder by history; unspecified neurocognitive disorder; occupational problems; other history of psychological trauma; and a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 51-60, moderate symptoms (Exhibit 6F).” The ALJ gave “this evidence” significant weight, noting Dr. Doty opined that Plaintiff “is capable of managing his own funds.” R. 37.

         The ALJ then discussed the treating source opinion of John Laurent, M.D. dated July 24, 2017. The ALJ recounted each of the categories Dr. Laurent listed as “marked, ” and the single “moderate” category before giving the opinion “little weight.” R. 37-38.[3] R. 38. The ALJ gave little weight to a 100% service connected disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs, noting that the two agencies' disability determination processes are “fundamentally different.” R. 38-39. Finally, the ALJ gave little weight to the state agency psychological consultants' mental findings, because “the above residual functional capacity is more consistent with the totality of the evidence.” Id.

         After evaluating the record evidence, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work as follows:

[T]he claimant is able to lift, carry, push or pull up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; able to sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; able to stand and/or walk up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; able to frequently reach overhead; able to frequently handle or finger with the right, dominant upper extremity; able to occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; able to perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks; job should provide regular breaks every 2 hours; able to interact with supervisors as needed to receive work instructions; able to [sic] in proximity to co-workers; job should not involve over-the-shoulder type ...

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