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Luton v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 12, 2019

WALTER L. LUTON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.



         The claimant Walter L. Luton 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 the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining he was not disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is 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 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[.]” 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.[2]

         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. 157). He completed tenth grade and has worked as a construction worker and automobile service station mechanic (Tr. 33, 51). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since January 1, 1994, due to depression, anxiety, degenerative disc disease, neck problems, and back problems (Tr. 174-75).

         Procedural History

          On November 13, 2014, the claimant applied for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85 (Tr. 157-59). His application was denied. ALJ Anne H. Pate held an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated April 12, 2017 (Tr. 12-20). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ's written opinion represents the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

          The ALJ made her decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. She found the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work, i. e., he could lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit/stand/walk six hours in an eight-hour workday, and occasionally climb and stoop (Tr. 16). Due to psychologically-based limitations, the ALJ also found the claimant could perform simple tasks with routine supervision, relate to supervisors and peers on a superficial basis, and adapt to a work setting and some forewarned changes in a usually stable work setting, but could not work with the general public (Tr. 16). The ALJ then concluded that although the claimant could not return to his past relevant work, he was nevertheless not disabled because there was work he could perform in the national economy, i. e., housekeeper cleaner, domestic laundry worker, and carwash attendant (Tr. 18-20).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by: (i) failing to account for his neck pain, headaches, and shoulder problems in formulating the RFC; (ii) relying on vocational expert (“VE”) testimony at step five that was inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”); and (iii) failing to properly evaluate his subjective statements. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in formulating the RFC, and the decision of the Commissioner must be reversed and the case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         The ALJ found the claimant had the severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, major depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder (Tr. 14). The relevant medical evidence reveals that the claimant underwent an MRI of his lumbar spine on October 26, 2012, which was unremarkable (Tr. 355). Thereafter, physician assistant Tommie Stanberry treated the claimant ...

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