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Louise K. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 30, 2019

KATRINA LOUISE K., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JODI F. JAYNE, MAGISTRATE JUDGE..

         Plaintiff Katrina Louise K. seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claims for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, and 1382c(a)(3). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) & (3), the parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. For reasons explained below, the Court reverses the Commissioner’s decision denying benefits. Any appeal of this decision will be directly to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

         I. Standard of Review

          In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994)). “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.” Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004). The Court must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ’s findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if the Court might have reached a different conclusion, the Commissioner’s decision stands so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).

         II. Procedural History and ALJ’s Decision

          Plaintiff, then a 39-year-old female, protectively applied for Title II benefits on October 9, 2014, and filed for Title XVI benefits on October 28, 2014, alleging in both applications a disability onset date of May 15, 2014. R. 18, 248-258. Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018. R. 19, 20. Plaintiff listed the conditions preventing her from working as depression with crying spells and suicidal thoughts; anxiety, including panic attacks and trouble sleeping; post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); and bipolar disorder with racing thoughts. R. 306. Plaintiff’s claims for benefits were denied initially on January 29, 2015, and on reconsideration on March 13, 2015. R. 62-85; 88-111. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ held the hearing on December 14, 2016. R. 33-53. The ALJ issued a decision on December 23, 2016, finding at step five that Plaintiff was not disabled because she could perform other work. R. 15-28. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed. R. 1-3; ECF No. 2.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. R. 20. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s depression and anxiety were severe impairments but that Plaintiff’s Hepatitis C and history of substance abuse were non-severe. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ specifically discussed listing 12.04 (affective mood disorders), listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and listing 12.09 (substance addiction disorders), finding that Plaintiff had mild difficulties in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in the two areas of (1) social functioning and (2) concentration, persistence, or pace; and no episodes of decompensation. R. 21.

         The ALJ found Plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

[T]o perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: She is limited to simple, repetitive tasks with the ability to relate to supervisors and co-workers only superficially. She cannot work with the public.

R. 22. In support of the RFC, the ALJ discussed Plaintiff’s testimony regarding her mental symptoms; a third-party function report from Plaintiff’s brother; Plaintiff’s mental health treatment history; and opinion evidence from the state agency reviewers. R. 23-26.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. R. 27. At step five, based on the hypothetical posed to the VE and her responses, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform the requirements of representative medium-exertion occupations such as janitor (SVP-2) and dishwasher (SVP-2). R. 28.

         III. Issues and Analysis

          Plaintiff raises three allegations of error on appeal: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to develop the record in this case; (2) the ALJ’s finding as to Plaintiff’s RFC is erroneous; and (3) the decision was rendered by an ALJ whose appointment was invalid at the time he rendered his decision.[1]

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err by Declining to Order a Mental Consultative Exam

          Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred by failing to develop the record. Specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ should have ordered a consultative examination (“CE”) following the hearing. At the hearing, Plaintiff’s counsel requested a mental CE of ...


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