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Lee W. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 30, 2019

DARYN LEE W., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Daryn Lee W. seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his claim for disability benefits 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. 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 44-year-old male, filed for Title XVI benefits on June 17, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of June 8, 2010. R. 179-182, 769. Plaintiff’s claim for benefits was initially denied and an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held an initial hearing on November 10, 2011, and a second hearing on June 6, 2012. R. 32-84. The ALJ issued a decision on June 29, 2012, denying Plaintiff’s claim. R. 11-25. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. R. 1-4. Plaintiff then appealed to the United States District Court, and the Commissioner moved for voluntary remand. R. 869-876. The presiding District Judge granted the Commissioner’s motion. R. 873-876. In the meantime, Plaintiff filed a subsequent application for Title XVI benefits on September 4, 2012, and on December 2, 2013, the Oklahoma Disability Determination Service found Plaintiff was disabled beginning on August 1, 2013, when Plaintiff began dialysis treatment. R. 768, 879. On December 23, 2014, the Appeals Council affirmed the finding of disability as of August 1, 2013, and remanded the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings regarding the period preceding August 1, 2013. R. 879-881.

         On remand, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing on April 15, 2015. R. 795-840. The ALJ issued a second decision on June 19, 2015, finding at step five that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to August 1, 2013, because he could perform other work. R. 768-786. The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed. R. 757-760; ECF No. 2.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. R. 771. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy; hypertension; morbid obesity; arthritis of the hip; anxiety; and depression. Id. The ALJ found Plaintiff’s Hepatitis B and C, endocarditis, and kidney disease to be non-severe. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that, prior to August 1, 2013, Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. With respect to Plaintiff’s mental impairments, the ALJ found the “paragraph B” criteria of the mental impairment listings were not satisfied, finding that Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in the three areas of (1) activities of daily living, (2) social functioning, and (3) concentration, persistence, or pace; and no episodes of decompensation. R. 773.

         The ALJ found that, prior to August 1, 2013, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of sedentary work as follows:

[T]he claimant could lift, carry, push and/or pull 10 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He could stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday. He could sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday. He could occasionally climb stairs and ramps, balance, bend or stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He was unable to climb ladders, ropes and scaffolding. He should avoid all exposure to unprotected heights. He could frequently finger, handle, and feel. He could do simple and routine tasks and some moderately complex tasks allowing semi-skilled work with superficial contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public (superficial defined as contact that a grocery clerk might have with co-workers, supervisors, and the public).

R. 774-775. In support of the RFC, the ALJ discussed Plaintiff’s testimony regarding his symptoms; medical expert testimony from Subramaniam Krishnamurthi, M.D.; Plaintiff’s medical treatment history; and opinion evidence from four consultative examiners and the state agency reviewers. R. 775-784.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had no past relevant work. R. 784. At step five, based on the hypothetical posed to the VE and her responses, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform the requirements of representative sedentary-exertion occupations such as Touch-Up Screener (SVP-2); Food and Beverage Order Clerk (SVP-2); and Document Specialist (SVP-2). R. 785.

         III. Issues and Analysis

          Plaintiff raises three allegations of error on appeal: (1) the ALJ’s finding as to Plaintiff’s RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ’s credibility finding is error as a matter of law and not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the decision was rendered by an ALJ whose appointment was invalid at the time he rendered his decision.[1]

         A. Plaintiff’s RFC is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         1. The ALJ Applied the ...

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