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Teresa V. N. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 30, 2019

TERESA V. N., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Teresa N. seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 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 and remands for further proceedings. 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) (quotations omitted). 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 the ALJ’s Decision

          Plaintiff, then a 52-year-old female, protectively applied for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits on October 17, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of October 17, 2014. R. 208. Plaintiff claimed that she was unable to work due to depression, being suicidal, migraines, skin lesions, sleeping problems, inability to be around people, headaches, inability to sit still, and being very nervous. R. 267. Plaintiff’s claim for benefits was denied initially on March 17, 2015, and on reconsideration on May 20, 2015. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ conducted the hearing on December 7, 2016. The ALJ issued a decision on January 4, 2017, denying benefits and finding Plaintiff not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of October 17, 2014. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: possible delusional disorder/Morgellon’s disease. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments of such severity to result in listing-level impairments. After evaluating the record evidence, the ALJ concluded as follows with respect to Plaintiff’s residual functioning capacity (“RFC”):

[C]laimant has the [RFC] to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). Specifically the claimant is able to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, and sit, stand, and/or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks. Additionally, the claimant can perform superficial and incidental work related interaction with co-workers and supervisors, but not the public, and she is limited to simple and routine tasks such as those in unskilled work.

R. 15 (emphasis added). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to return to her past relevant work as a collection clerk. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), however, the ALJ found at step five that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exits in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled.

         III. Issues

         Plaintiff raises four issues on appeal: (1) the ALJ erred in her treatment of the psychiatric medical opinions of consultative examiners Dr. Dennis Rawlings and Dr. Brian Snider, and the ALJ’s mental RFC findings are therefore not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ’s consistency findings are not supported by substantial evidence; (3) the ALJ failed to follow clear vocational testimony in favor of Plaintiff; and (4) the ALJ’s appointment was invalid under the U.S. Constitution, rendering the decision invalid. The Court finds the ALJ erred by wholly ignoring Dr. Rawlings’ medical opinion and that the error is not harmless. The Court does not reach the other arguments.[1]

         IV. Analysis

         In her first proposition of error, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ committed error by: (1) improperly ignoring the medical opinion of Dr. Rawlings; and (2) improperly rejecting the medical opinion of Dr. Snider to the extent he found more severe mental limitations than those adopted by the ALJ.

         A. Mental Health Opinions by Dr. Rawlings (2011) and ...

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