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Harrison v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

September 20, 2019

MICHAEL R. HARRISON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STEVEN P. SHREDER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The claimant Michael R. Harrison 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 most recent administrative hearing (Tr. 124, 549). He has a high school education and has worked as supervisor/laborer (Tr. 25). The claimant alleges that he has been unable to work since August 20, 2012, due to chronic sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, hearing problems, sleep disorder, and ankle and foot problems (Tr. 623).

         Procedural History

         On August 27, 2012, the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 (Tr. 549-55). His application was denied. ALJ Daniel Curran conducted an administrative hearing and a supplemental hearing and determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated June 8, 2016 (Tr. 181-91). The Appeals Council remanded the case on July 25, 2016 (Tr. 198-201). On remand, ALJ Daniel Curran conducted an administrative hearing and a supplemental hearing and again determined that the claimant was not disabled in a written opinion dated December 1, 2017 (Tr. 15-27). The Appeals Council denied review, so the ALJ’s December 2017 written opinion represents the Commissioners’ final decision for purposes of this appeal. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Decision of the Administrative Law Judge

         The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), in an indoors, environmentally controlled setting (Tr. 23). Due to psychologically-based limitations, the ALJ found the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; make judgments that were commensurate with the functions of unskilled work, i. e., simple work-related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting; but could not do work that required joint decision-making or teamwork, and could not have more than occasional contact with members of the public (Tr. 23). 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, e. g., merchandise marker, office helper, and pencil sorter (Tr. 25-26).

         Review

         The claimant contends that the ALJ erred by failing to: (i) properly analyze the consultative opinions of Dr. Raymond Fuchs and Dr. Michael Stephens, and (ii) resolve a conflict between the vocational expert’s (“VE”) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupation Titles (“DOT”). The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in evaluating Dr. Stephens’ opinion; therefore 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 major depressive disorder, history of alcohol dependence, insomnia, hyperlipidemia, chronic sinusitis, joint pain, and pes planus (Tr. 17-18). The relevant medical evidence as to the claimant’s mental impairments reveals that the claimant presented to nurse practitioner Sandra Bollier on May 21, 2010, and reported problems with anger, irritability, low mood, and insomnia after his home sustained significant damage from a tornado earlier that week (Tr. 1200). Ms. Bollier diagnosed the claimant with stress, insomnia, and depressive symptoms (Tr. 1203). At a follow-up appointment ...


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