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Long v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 23, 2019

MARTIN D. LONG, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          CHARLES B. GOODWIN United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Martin D. Long 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 application 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. 11, 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.

         Procedural History and Administrative Decision Plaintiff protectively filed his DIB application on March 23, 2016, alleging disability on the basis of Hepatitis C, stroke, diabetes, intestinal issues from a prior accident, and complications from chemical poisoning. R. 10, 391-96, 420. His disability-onset date was ultimately alleged to be June 12, 1997. R. 10, 268, 420, 426, 436, 446. Following denial of his application initially and on reconsideration, a hearing was conducted before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). R. 264-308, 309-29. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 21, 2017. R. 10-20.

         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. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of June 12, 1997, through the date he had last met the insured-status requirements of the Social Security Act (December 31, 2004). R. 12; see also R. 269 (Plaintiff testifying in June 2017 that he had not worked since June 1997).

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medical determinable impairments: “hypoglycemia; hypertension; hepatitis C; porphyria cutanea tarda; alleged exposure to chemicals; status post [cerebrovascular accident]; and carotid artery surgery.” R. 12. The ALJ next found that Plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited his ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve consecutive months and that therefore Plaintiff “did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” R. 12-19.

         Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability for purposes of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period. R. 19; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (“If we find that you are . . . not disabled at a step, we make our . . . decision and we do not go on to the next step.”). Plaintiff’s request for review by the SSA Appeals Council was denied, and the unfavorable decision of the ALJ stands as the Commissioner’s final decision. R. 1-6; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Standard of Review

         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).


         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s finding at step two that Plaintiff had no severe impairments singly or in combination. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by improperly ignoring certain opinions by Plaintiff’s treating physician Clinton R. Strong, MD, regarding necessary environmental restrictions and Plaintiff’s ability to work. Relatedly, Plaintiff argues that this legal error and others committed by the ALJ rendered the step-two finding unsupported by substantial evidence. See Pl.’s Br. (Doc. No. 14) at 12-19; Pl.’s Reply (Doc. No. 19) at 1-6; see also Def.’s Br. (Doc. No. 18) at 2-13. The Court agrees with both propositions.

         I. The Step-Two Determination

         At step two of the disability analysis, the claimant has the burden to present evidence that he or she has “a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). An impairment is severe if it “significantly limit[s] [a claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522(a). The “ability to do basic work activities” is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” Id. § 404.1522(b). For purposes of Plaintiff’s claims, the most relevant activities include the ability to perform “[p]hysical functions such as walking, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling.” Id. § 404.1522(b)(1).

         Stated differently, the inquiry at step two is whether any impairment or combination of impairments has “more than a minimal effect” on a claimant’s ability to do basic work activities. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988). “[W]hile the showing a claimant must make at step two is de minimis, a showing of the mere presence of a condition is not sufficient.” Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1186 (10th Cir. 2008); see also SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *11 (Oct. 25, 2017).

         In an oft-cited concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor explained the purpose of a low threshold at this early point of the sequential evaluation: “[S]tep two may not be used to disqualify those who meet the statutory definition of disability ..... Only those claimants with slight abnormalities that do not significantly limit any ‘basic work activity’ can be denied benefits without undertaking [the subsequent analytical steps in the sequential evaluation process].” Bowen ...

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