Austin v. Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER by Magistrate Judge Kimberly E. West reversing and remanding the decision of the ALJ(sjr, Chambers)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
AMY M. AUSTIN,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social
Case No. CIV-16-161-KEW
OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Amy M. Austin (the “Claimant”) requests judicial
review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying Claimant’s application
for disability benefits under the Social Security Act.
appeals the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and
asserts that the Commissioner erred because the ALJ incorrectly
Commissioner’s decision should be and is REVERSED and the case is
REMANDED to Defendant for further proceedings.
Social Security Law and Standard of Review
Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason
of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment. . .”
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
A claimant is disabled under the Social
impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do
his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and
work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful
Social Security regulations implement a five-step
sequential process to evaluate a disability claim.
See, 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920.1
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s determination is limited
in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
This Court’s review is limited to
first, whether the decision was supported by
Step one requires the claimant to establish that he is not
engaged in substantial gainful activity, as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1510, 416.910. Step two requires that the claimant establish that
he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments that
significantly limit his ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1521, 416.921. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity (step one) or if the claimant’s impairment is not medically
severe (step two), disability benefits are denied. At step three, the
claimant’s impairment is compared with certain impairments listed in 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. A claimant suffering from a listed
impairment or impairments “medically equivalent” to a listed impairment
is determined to be disabled without further inquiry.
If not, the
evaluation proceeds to step four, where claimant must establish that he
does not retain the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his
past relevant work.
If the claimant’s step four burden is met, the
burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at step five that work
exists in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant
– taking into account his age, education, work experience, and RFC – can
perform. Disability benefits are denied if the Commissioner shows that
the impairment which precluded the performance of past relevant work does
not preclude alternative work. See generally, Williams v. Bowen, 844
F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988).
standards were applied.
Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1164
(10th Cir. 1997)(citation omitted). The term “substantial evidence”
has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to require
“more than a mere scintilla.
It means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).
court may not re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its discretion
for that of the agency.
Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human
Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, the court
must review the record as a whole, and the “substantiality of the
evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly
detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S.
474, 488 (1951); see also, Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01.
Claimant was 37 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision.
Claimant completed her high school education and one year of
Claimant has worked in the past as a quality control
Claimant alleges an inability to work beginning July
11, 2012 due to limitations resulting from peripheral neuropathy and
chronic pain in her feet and hands.
On August 20, 2012, Claimant protectively filed for disability
insurance benefits under Title II (42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq.) of the
Social Security Act.
Claimant’s application was denied initially
and upon reconsideration.
On October 14, 2014, an administrative
hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) James
Bentley by video with Claimant appearing in Ada, Oklahoma and the
ALJ presiding from McAlester, Oklahoma. By decision dated December
8, 2014, the ALJ denied Claimant’s request for benefits.
Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ’s decision on March 24,
As a result, the decision of the ALJ represents the
Commissioner’s final decision for purposes of further appeal.
C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.
Decision of the Administrative Law Judge
The ALJ made his decision at step five of the sequential
He determined that while Claimant suffered from severe
impairments, she did not meet a listing and retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with limitations.
Errors Alleged for Review
Claimant asserts the ALJ committed error in (1) reaching an RFC
which found Claimant could work on a regular and continuing basis;
impairments in the RFC.
In his decision, the ALJ found Claimant suffered from the
severe impairments of chronic lumbar pain, rheumatoid arthritis,
plantar fasciitis, obesity, urolithiasis, vestibular instability,
The ALJ determined Claimant retained
the RFC to perform light work except that she required a sit/stand
option, defined as a temporary change in position from sitting to
standing and vice versa for purposes of comfort without more than
one change in position every 20 minutes and without leaving the
work station so as not to diminish pace or production; unable to
operate foot controls bilaterally; should never climb ladders,
dangerous, moving machinery; should avoid concentrated exposure to
extremes of cold and heat; should not more than frequently handle
or finger; and should have no more than occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and/or the general public.
After consultation with a vocational expert, the ALJ found
Claimant could perform the representative jobs of mailroom clerk,
sorters, and electronics worker, all of which he found existed in
sufficient numbers in the regional and national economies.
As a result, the ALJ determined Claimant was not disabled
from July 11, 2012 through the date of the decision.
Claimant contends the ALJ failed to consider the combined
effect of her impairments upon her ability to maintain work on a
regular and continuing basis.
Claimant’s physician, Dr. James
Wight, indicated on January 5, 2012 that Claimant’s neuropathy pain
would not cause her to be incapacitated for a single continuous
period of time.
However, he expected her condition to cause
episodic flare-ups periodically preventing her from performing her
required to be absent from work, Dr. Wight noting, “flares of
neuropathy pain may require going home.” He expected the frequency
of such “flare-ups” to be
eleven times per month for a period of
four to eight hours per episode. (Tr. 299-300). In fact, Claimant
missed two days of work in May 2012 and two days in June 2012
before being terminated in July of 2012.
(Tr. 301, 317, 335).
On October 31, 2012, Claimant complained to Dr. Baker Fore of
“breakthrough pain” caused by neuropathy in her hands and feet.
She experienced trouble with her balance and stumbled.
given Lipoderm patches for her feet which resulted in a reduction
of her pain level from an eight to a six.
of 2012, Claimant reported severe pain in feet and hands and she
only experienced about four hours of relief on medication.
Claimant demonstrated elevated blood pressure in January of
2013 which Dr. Fore found caused her pain to increase.
She experienced heart problems in April of 2013 and was prescribed
an additional Lortab for her pain.
She continued to suffer increased pain
in February and March of 2014.
(Tr. 386, 433).
continued through December of 2014.
Claimant underwent a consultative examination by Dr. Jack
Howard in February of 2013.
Dr. Howard found Claimant had reduced
range of motion in her lumbar back and bilateral elbows. (Tr. 349,
On July 24, 2013, Claimant underwent an MRI which revealed
desiccation and loss of disc space height with minimal disc bulging
at T12-L1, L1-2, and L3-4.
She also experienced minimal disc
bulging and facet arthropathy with minimal neuroforaminal narrowing
bilaterally at L4-5.
Th MRI showed a posterior annular fissure
arthropathy with mild neuroforaminal narrowing bilaterally at L5S1.
Claimant wore a lumbar brace in September of 2013. (Tr. 391).
Dr. Wight noted decreased sensitivity caused by her peripheral
neuropathy. She had decreased range of motion in her lumbar spine.
On October 25, 2013, Dr. Wight noted Claimant had a mild limp,
tenderness in her lumbar spine, and decreased sensation in her
hands and feet.
She suffered from weakness in her hand
The vocational expert employed in this case testified that if
a worker consistently missed work twice per month, the absences
representative jobs he identified.
“[R]esidual functional capacity consists of those activities
that a claimant can still perform on a regular and continuing basis
despite his or her physical limitations.”
White v. Barnhart, 287
F.3d 903, 906 n. 2 (10th Cir. 2001).
A residual functional
capacity assessment “must include a narrative discussion describing
how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical
facts ... and nonmedical evidence.” Soc. Sec. R. 96–8p.
must also discuss the individual's ability to perform sustained
work activities in an ordinary work setting on a “regular and
continuing basis” and describe the maximum amount of work related
activity the individual can perform based on evidence contained in
the case record. Id.
The ALJ must “explain how any material
inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record
requirement in the regulations for a direct correspondence between
an RFC finding and a specific medical opinion on the functional
capacity in question.”
Chapo v. Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1288 (10th
A significant question exists in the medical evidence
as to whether this Claimant can consistently maintain light work on
a regular and consistent basis. On remand, the ALJ should consider
the effects of Claimant’s pain and neuropathy upon her ability to
consistently maintain employment due to the excessive absences
predicted by her treating physician.
Consideration of Claimant’s Handling Impairments
The ALJ included a restriction in the RFC to no more than
frequent handling and fingering.
The medical evidence
demonstrated a consistent and progressive degradation in Claimant’s
hands. She suffered advancing pain, sensitivity, and weakness over
(Tr. 388, 394, 396, 430, 432).
The ALJ failed to consider
the progressive nature of Claimant’s hand condition in reaching his
On remand, he should re-evaluate Claimant’s hand pain and
neuropathy and whether it would reduce the available jobs.
substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were not
applied. Therefore, this Court finds, in accordance with the fourth
sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the ruling of the Commissioner of
Social Security Administration should be and is
REVERSED and the
matter REMANDED to Defendant for further proceedings.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 12th day of September, 2017.
KIMBERLY E. WEST
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?