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Pruitt v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 30, 2019

RENAE PRUITT, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Renae Pruitt brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) denial of disability benefits. The SSA Commissioner has answered and filed the administrative record (hereinafter TR. __). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court’s review of the record and the issues presented, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 10-19). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (TR. 1-3). Ms. Pruitt then filed an appeal in this Court, which remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. (TR. 373-377). Following two additional administrative hearings, the ALJ issued another unfavorable decision. (TR. 297-308). Plaintiff did not file an appeal with the Appeals Council, but instead filed the instant action. (ECF No. 1). Thus, it is in this posture that the case is before the Court once again, with the second decision of the ALJ being the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 10, 2011, the application date. (TR. 299). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Pruitt had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis; migraines; asthma; degenerative disc disease; and obesity. (TR. 299). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 300).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (TR. 307). The ALJ further concluded that Ms. Pruitt had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

Lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for about six hours during an eight-hour workday and can stand and walk for about six hours during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.
The claimant can occasionally reach overhead. The claimant can frequently handle, finger, and feel. The claimant is to avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, and poor ventilation. The claimant can perform unskilled work. 20 CFR 416.967(b).

(TR. 301).

         Based on the finding that Ms. Pruitt could not perform her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded to step five. There, the ALJ presented the RFC limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 331). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). (TR. 331). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Pruitt was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 308).

         III. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Ms. Pruitt alleges the ALJ erred: (1) at step three, (2) in evaluating evidence from a consultative examiner, (3) in formulating the RFC, and (4) at step five. (ECF No. 15:4-14).

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the Commissioner’s final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         V. STEP THREE

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred at step three in concluding that Ms. Pruitt did not meet Listing 1.04(A). (ECF No. 15:10-13). The Court rejects this argument.

         A. Criteria at Step Three

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant’s impairment is “equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Secretary acknowledged as so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). If this standard is met, the claimant is considered per se disabled. Knipe v. Heckler, 755 F.2d 141, 146 (10th Cir. 1985). The question of whether a claimant meets or equals a listed impairment is strictly a medical determination. Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990); 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(c)(3)-(4) & 416.926(b). “The claimant has the burden at step three of demonstrating, through medical evidence, that his impairments “meet all of the specified medical criteria” contained in a particular listing. Sullivan v. Zelbey, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990) (emphasis in original). “An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Id.

         Once the claimant has produced such evidence, the burden is on the ALJ to identify and discuss any relevant listings. Fisher-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 733 n. 3 (2005). In doing so, the ALJ must weigh the evidence and make specific findings to support the step three determination. Clifton, at 1009.

         B. Listing 1.04(A)

         Listing 1.04 outlines the requirements to establish whether a presumptive disability exists in an individual with a disorder of the spine. Listing 1.04 can be satisfied three ways, as set forth in subsections (A)-(C). All three subsections require that the claimant first establish that he has a disorder of the spine, “resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equine) or ...


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