United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma
OPINION AND ORDER
F. JAYNE, MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Delbert James H. 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), and 423. In accordance with 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c)(1) & (3), the parties have consented to
proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
Standard of Review
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).
Procedural History and the ALJ's Decision
then a 45-year-old male, protectively applied for Title II
benefits on February 24, 2015, alleging a disability onset
date of March 19, 2013. R. 212-217. Plaintiff claimed that he
was unable to work due to disorders including post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), bilateral hearing loss, tinnitus,
desiccation in lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease, high
blood pressure, muscle spasms, migraines, and patellofemoral
syndrome (knee pain). R. 236. Plaintiff's claim for
benefits was denied initially on June 10, 2015, and on
reconsideration on August 21, 2015. R. 105-109; 111-113.
Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”).
conducted a hearing via video conference on April 17,
2017. R. 50-77. Plaintiff testified at length
about problems resulting from his service-related PTSD during
this hearing. For example, Plaintiff discussed nightmares and
flashbacks of events he experienced during active deployment
in Iraq, Mosul, Kabul, and Afghanistan; avoidance of public
areas; and excessive hypervigilance which interferes with his
daily activities and sleep. R. 56-60. Plaintiff testified
that sleep issues and his medications combine to contribute
to his problems with attention and concentration. R. 59.
posed one hypothetical to the vocational expert
(“VE”) based on “the state agency
assessment found in 4A, ” which was ultimately adopted
as Plaintiff's RFC. R. 73-74. The VE testified that
Plaintiff could not return to any of his past relevant work,
but other light work existed in the national economy that he
could perform. R. 75. The ALJ then asked the VE “if we
had an individual who couldn't complete an eight-hour
day, five days a week, we'd have an individual who
couldn't work, right?” Id. The VE
testified that such an individual would be unable to sustain
19, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits and
finding Plaintiff not disabled because he was able to perform
other work that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy. R. 15-32. In that decision, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff suffered the severe impairments of history of
back pain, left hip and left shoulder pain, obesity, and
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). R. 21. Plaintiff's
medically determinable, non-severe impairments, all of which
caused no more than minimal limitations, were hearing loss,
hypertension, high cholesterol, headaches, medication side
effects, and dyspnea. Id. The ALJ found that none of
Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled a listing, and he
found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work
as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except:
The [claimant] can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally
and 10 pounds frequently. He can sit for 6 hours out of an
8-hour workday. The claimant can stand/walk for 6 hours out
of an 8-hour workday. The claimant should avoid concentrated
exposure to such things as fumes or dust. He is limited
to simple repetitive tasks, no public contact, and
superficial contact with coworkers and supervisors.
R. 23 (emphasis added).
making this RFC determination, the ALJ gave “little
weight” to the DDS doctors' non-severe physical
limitations at Exhibits 2A and 4A and gave “some
weight” to the DDS psychological consultant's
mental assessments at Exhibits 2A and 4A, because records
submitted at the hearing level “showed greater
impairment.” R. 30. The ALJ afforded the May 5, 2015,
opinion of consultative examiner Brian Snider, Ph.D.
“great weight.” R. 25-26, 29. Specifically
discussing Plaintiff's mental health impairments, the ALJ
noted that Dr. Snider opined that Plaintiff “would
probably have little difficulty understanding and carrying
out simple instructions, mild-moderate difficulty
concentrating and persisting through a normal workday
due to his psychiatric symptoms, and his ability to
maintain a normal workday and work week without
interruptions from his psychiatric symptoms was likely
mildly-moderately impaired.” R. 29 (emphasis
added). The ALJ then stated, without further
explanation, that a mental limitation to “simple
repetitive task, no public contact, and superficial contact
with coworkers and supervisors would be appropriate.”
R. 29. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff
appealed that decision to this Court. R. 1-5; ECF No. 2.