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Shott v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 17, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. The Commissioner has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR__), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the following reasons, it is recommended the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Administrative History and Final Agency Decision

         Plaintiff filed her application for disability insurance benefits on February 2, 2016. AR 160-61. Plaintiff alleged she became disabled on August 7, 2015 due to a back injury, depression, and increased anxiety. AR 160, 187. The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application on March 15, 2016, see Id. at 67, 68-82 and on reconsideration on June 16, 2016. AR 83-100, 101.

         Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at an administrative hearing conducted before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 27, 2017. AR 29-66. A vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. AR 58-64. The ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 9-23. Following the agency's well-established sequential evaluation procedure, the ALJ found at the first step that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 29, 2015. AR 14. At the second step, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments of fibromyalgia, back disorder, systemic lupus erythematosus, obesity, hypertension, psoriatic arthritis, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Id. At the third step, the ALJ found these impairments were not per se disabling as Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the requirements of a listed impairment. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit, stand, and walk for six hours in an eight hour workday, occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and frequently handle and finger. AR 17. Plaintiff can perform simple and some complex tasks, relate to others on a superficial work basis, and adapt to work situations. Id.

         Relying on the VE's testimony as to the ability of a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's work history, age, education, and determined RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. AR 21. Still relying on the VE, the ALJ further concluded Plaintiff could perform the jobs of mail clerk, mail sorter, and bakery worker. AR 21-22. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from May 29, 2015 through the date of the decision. AR 22.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and therefore the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009).

         II. Issue Raised

         Plaintiff raises two issues on appeal. First, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation process by failing to properly consider whether she met the requirements for Listing 14.02. Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. No. 16) at 10-20. Second, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred in granting only little weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Craig Carson, M.D. Doc. No. 16 at 20-30.

         III. General Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citations and quotations omitted). The “determination of whether the ALJ's ruling is supported by substantial evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Consequently, [the Court must] remain mindful that evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citations, quotations, and brackets omitted).

         The Social Security Act authorizes payment of benefits to an individual with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. A disability is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see 20 C.F.R. §404.1509 (duration requirement). Both the “impairment” and the “inability” must be expected to last not less than twelve months. Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002).

         The agency follows a five-step sequential evaluation procedure in resolving the claims of disability applicants. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), (b)-(g). “If the claimant is not considered disabled at step three, but has satisfied her burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability under steps one, two, and four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant has the [RFC] to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience.” Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. ...

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