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Knight v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 12, 2019

RIKKI D. KNIGHT, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.



         The claimant Rikki D. Knight 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 the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining she 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 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.[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. 40). She completed high school, vocational training in nursing, and two years of college and has worked as a licensed practical nurse and nursing home administrator (Tr. 47, 64, 213). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since June 21, 2013, due to a herniated, ruptured, and bulging disc; lumbar disc compression; diabetes; hypertension; bipolar disorder with anxiety and panic attacks; psoriatic arthritis; rheumatoid arthritis; right hip sciatica; psoriasis; and fibromyalgia (Tr. 39, 212).

         Procedural History

         In December 2014, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 191-94). Her application was denied. ALJ B.D. Crutchfield conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled from her alleged onset date of January 21, 2013, through her date last insured of December 31, 2014, in a written opinion dated January 13, 2017 (Tr. 15-29). 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 her decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. She found the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), i. e., she could lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit, stand, or walk six hours out of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; frequently climb ramps or stairs, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and occasionally stoop; but could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds (Tr. 21). Due to psychologically-based limitations, the ALJ found the claimant could perform simple and some complex (defined during the hearing as semi-skilled) tasks with routine supervision; could relate to supervisors, co-workers, and the general public on a superficial work-type basis only; and could adapt to a work setting and some forewarned changes in a usually stable work setting (Tr. 21). The ALJ then 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 in the national economy, e. g., small product assembler, poultry processor, and inspector packer (Tr. 27-29).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion of treating physician Dr. Douglas Brown, and the Court agrees.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and affective disorder, but that her diabetes, hypertension, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, right hip sciatica, psoriasis, and fibromyalgia were nonsevere (Tr. 18-19). The relevant medical records reveal that Dr. Nelson Onaro treated the claimant for, inter alia, anxiety, low back pain, diabetes, and hypertension, from July 2013 through October 2013 (Tr. 330-45). Dr. Onaro performed one physical examination during this and it was normal (Tr. 337-38). Dr. Brown then treated the claimant for, inter alia, low back pain, anxiety, diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia from November 2013 through October 2016 (Tr. 346-418, 461-571, 660-96).[3] Dr. Brown's physical examinations were normal through July 2014 (Tr. 346-93, 400-04). Beginning in September 2014 and continuing through October 2016, Dr. Brown consistently found moderate pain with range of motion testing in the claimant's lumbar spine, but the pain was severe in July 2015 and April 2016 (Tr. 394-99, 405-18, 461-571, 660-96). Additionally, Dr. Brown found tenderness in the claimant's lumbar spine in September 2014 and muscles spasms in her lumbar spine in October 2014, November 2014, and January 2016 (Tr. 398, 408, 413, ...

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