United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma
MARTIN D. LONG, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
CHARLES B. GOODWIN United States District Judge.
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. ”),  and the arguments and
authorities submitted by the parties, the Court reverses the
Commissioner’s decision and remands the case for
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
The Step-Two Determination
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. §
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).
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 ...