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Rowell v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 18, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         The claimant Angela Darlene Rowell 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 hereby AFFIRMED.

         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 most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 46). She has a high school education and has worked as a resident supervisor, resident care aide, day care worker, waitress, and kitchen helper (Tr. 51, 66). The claimant alleges that she has been unable to work since an amended onset date of September 7, 2012, due to anxiety, depression, tethered and split cord, tissue disorder, muscle pain, and back pain (Tr. 326, 331).

         Procedural History

         In September 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 291-92). Her application was denied. ALJ B.D. Crutchfield conducted an administrative hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled through her date last insured of December 31, 2012, in a written opinion dated November 19, 2014 (Tr. 131-40). The Appeals Council remanded the case on June 2, 2016 (Tr. 147-49). On remand, ALJ B.D. Crutchfield conducted another administrative hearing and again found the claimant was not disabled through her date last insured in a written decision dated November 29, 2016 (Tr. 16-27). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ’s November 2016 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; stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour workday; and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday (Tr. 22). Due to psychologically-based limitations, the ALJ found the claimant could perform simple and some complex tasks (defined during the hearing as semi-skilled) with routine supervision, adapt to change, and avoid hazards in a workplace setting (Tr. 22). 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., telephone solicitor, credit card clerk, and data examination clerk (Tr. 26-27).


         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to: (i) account for her headaches and nonsevere carpal tunnel syndrome and incontinence in formulating her RFC, and (ii) pose a hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”) that included all of her limitations. The Court finds these contentions unpersuasive for the following reasons.

         The ALJ found that the claimant had the severe impairments of undifferentiated and mixed connective tissue disease, minimal spondylosis of the lumbar spine, and affective disorder, but that her intermittent bladder incontinence, history of tethered cord syndrome, status post left carpal tunnel release, and fibromyalgia were nonsevere (Tr. 19). The medical records prior to the claimant’s alleged onset date reveal that providers at Creek Nation Indian Clinic managed her medications for various complaints of pain, including headaches, back pain, and leg pain, between June 2008 and March 2012 (Tr. 515-748). These treatment notes do not contain any physical examination findings, but do reflect numerous diagnoses ...

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