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Hearns v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 23, 2019

JOE S. HEARNS JR., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Joe S. Hearns Jr. brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying Plaintiff’s applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Upon review of the administrative record (Doc. No. 10, hereinafter “R. ”)[2], and the arguments and authorities submitted by the parties, the Court reverses the Commissioner’s decision and remands the case for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed his DIB application on June 19, 2014, alleging a disability-onset date of May 5, 2014. R. 15, 174-80. Following a denial of his application initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 31, 2017. R. 15, 29-53, 54-77. In addition to Plaintiff, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. R. 48-51. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 4, 2017. R. 12-22.

         As relevant here, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine entitlement to disability benefits. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. R. 17. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe medically determinable impairments of sinusitis, diabetes mellitus, tenosynovitis, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, arthritis of the upper extremities, obesity, and a history of sarcoidosis. R. 17-18. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s condition did not meet or equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 19.

         The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all his medically determinable impairments. R. 20-21. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to

perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). [Plaintiff] can lift, carry, push, or pull up to 20 pounds occasionally; stand, walk, or sit, each, for six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, [Plaintiff] must avoid pulmonary irritants in the workplace.

R. 20. At step four, the ALJ considered the hearing testimony of the VE and found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a sales clerk and a food inspector. R. 22, 49-50. Thus, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. R. 22; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(iv), (f).

         Plaintiff’s request for review by the SSA Appeals Council was denied on July 11, 2017, and the unfavorable determination of the ALJ stands as the Commissioner’s final decision. R. 1-6; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.


         Judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision is limited to determining whether factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether correct legal standards were applied. Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). “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.” Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court “meticulously examine[s] the record as a whole, ” including any evidence “that may undercut or detract from the ALJ’s findings, ” “to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (internal quotation marks omitted). While a reviewing court considers whether the Commissioner followed applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court does not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008).


         In this action, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to evaluate the impact of functional limitations assessed by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) physician assistant, (2) improperly evaluating the medical opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician, Christopher Vaughns, MD, and (3) selectively citing the opinion of ...

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