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Williams v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

October 4, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Shawn Williams 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 REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the SSA denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 13-25). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (TR. 1-3).


         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 January 3, 2016, the application date. (TR. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Williams had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus; seizure disorder; residual of February 2016 comminuted fracture of left arm/shoulder; depression; anxiety; and borderline intellectual functioning. (TR. 16). 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. 16).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Williams had no past relevant work, but retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except he can is limited to no more than frequent reaching with the left upper extremity and no overhead reaching with the left upper extremity. He must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and have no more than occasional exposure to hazards. Further, he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with no strict production requirements.

(TR. 19, 24). Based on the finding that Mr. Williams had no 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. 50-51). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 51). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Mr. Williams was not disabled based on his ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 25).


         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). Under the “substantial evidence” standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficien[t] evidence” to support the agency's factual determinations. Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). “Substantial evidence … is more than a mere scintilla … and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (internal citations and quotation marks 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).


         Mr. Williams alleges the ALJ erred: (1) in considering evidence from two licensed professional counselors and (2) at step five. (ECF No. 14:4-10).


         Plaintiff alleges error in the evaluation of opinions from two licensed professional counselors-Rebecca Kroeker and Jeannette Redman. (ECF No. 14:4-8). According to Mr. Williams, the ALJ ignored significantly probative evidence offered by Ms. Kroeker and Ms. Redman without explanation. (ECF No. 14:4-8). The Court disagrees as to Ms. Kroeker's opinion, but agrees that the ALJ erred in evaluating evidence from Ms. Redman.

         A. ALJ's Duty to Consider Evidence from “Other Sources”

         Tenth Circuit law and Social Security Ruling 06-3p state that the ALJ must consider evidence from “other sources, ” who do not qualify as “acceptable medical sources.” Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 914-15 (10th Cir. 2006); Titles II and XVI: Considering Opinions and Other Evidence from Sources Who are not “Acceptable Medical Sources” in Disability Claims; Considering Decisions on Disability by Other Governmental and Nongovernmental Agencies, 2006 WL 2329939, at *4, *6 (SSR 06-3p).[2] “Medical sources who are ‘not acceptable medical sources,' [include] … rehabilitation counselors … [and] professional … counselors.” SSR 06-03-p, at *2, *4.

         Opinions from these “non-medical sources” who have seen the claimant in an official capacity should be evaluated using the following factors: (1) the length and frequency of the treatment; (2) consistency of the opinion with other evidence; (3) the degree to which the source presents relevant evidence in support; (4) how well the source explains the opinion; (5) the level of the source's expertise; and (6) any other relevant factors. Id. at *5. In evaluating “other source” evidence, not every factor will apply in every case. Id. However, the ALJ should explain the weight given to the “other source, ” ensuring that the decision allows a reviewing party to follow the adjudicator's reasoning. Id. at *5-6.

         B. “Other Source” Evidence

         The record contains evidence from two non-medical “other sources.” On June 2, 2016, Ms. Kroeker wrote a letter which stated that Plaintiff was being seen for outpatient counseling at her agency. (TR. 395). In the letter, Ms. Kroeker stated that Plaintiff presented with anxiety, depression, and distorted thought processes and that he had cognitive impairments including learning problems and low IQ. (TR. 395).

         The record also contains evidence from the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (ODRS) where Mr. Williams was seen for vocational rehabilitation services. (TR. 404-469). As part of his treatment at ODRS, on October 28, 2016, Ms. Redman completed a report comprised of four parts: report which set forth: (1) “Determination, ” (2) “Disabilities, ” (3) “Impediment[s] to Employment, ” and (4) “Documentation.” (TR. 444-446).

         In the initial “Determination” Section, Mr. Williams was assessed into “Priority Group 1” with the following “Functional Limitations:”

• Communication-severe restriction;
• Interpersonal skills-severe ...

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