United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma
OPINION AND ORDER
F. JAYNE, MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
Standard of Review
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).
Procedural History and the ALJ's Decision
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.
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
evaluating the record evidence, the ALJ concluded as follows
with respect to Plaintiff's residual functioning capacity
[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.
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.
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 ...