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Michelle B. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

October 30, 2019

CHRISTINA MICHELLE B., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JODI F. JAYNE, MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Christina Michelle B. 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 38-year-old female, protectively applied for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits on June 1, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2015. R. 173-176. Plaintiff claimed that she was unable to work due to asthma, back pain, “right hand, ” joint pain, panic disorder, “hands, ” right arm, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a head injury. R. 198. Plaintiff's claim for benefits was denied initially on September 17, 2015, and on reconsideration on January 28, 2016. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the ALJ conducted the hearing on August 30, 2017. The ALJ issued a decision on October 27, 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 June 1, 2015. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma, two fingers missing on the right hand, epilepsy/pseudoseizures, hepatitis C (treated), anxiety disorder and PTSD. 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except with additional limitations. The claimant is able to lift and/or carry, and push and/or pull, ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. The claimant is able to stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday. The claimant is able to sit for six to eight hours out of an eight-hour workday. The claimant is unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant is able to occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant is limited to occasional strong gripping and fine fingering on the right. The claimant is limited to occasional exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, toxins, gases and poor ventilation. The claimant must avoid work requiring hazardous or fast machinery, unprotected heights, driving and pools of water. The claimant is able to perform simple and routine tasks. The claimant is able to perform work requiring superficial contact with co-workers and supervisors. The claimant is able to perform work requiring incidental contact with the public.

R. 19 (emphasis added). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to return to her past relevant work as a janitor/cleaner. 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 exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled.

         III. Issues

         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (1) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff had no manipulative impairment, where the record demonstrates Plaintiff only has three fingers on her right hand; (2) the ALJ erred by relying on vocational expert testimony that conflicted with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) without addressing and resolving the conflict as required by law; and (3) based on evidence submitted to the Appeals Council, the step-five job of surveillance system monitor no longer exists in significant numbers. The Court reverses and remands based on the second allegation of error and does not reach Plaintiff's other points of error.

         IV. Analysis

         In her second allegation of error, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed legal error by failing to investigate and elicit a reasonable explanation for a conflict between the VE's testimony and the DOT. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to question the VE regarding a conflict between the surveillance system monitor job, which the DOT assigns a reasoning level of ...


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