United States District Court, D. Utah
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE
COMMISIONER'S FINAL DECISION
Kohler United States Magistrate Judge.
Social Security disability appeal is before the Court
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff
Stephanie Oaks seeks review of the Administrative Law
Judge's (ALJ) decision denying her claim for disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.
After review and oral argument, the Court affirms the
Commissioner's final decision denying Ms. Oaks' claim
for disability benefits.
Oaks was 27 years old in March 2014, when she claimed she
became disabled due to schizoaffective disorder and bipolar
disorder. The record evidences several suicide attempts,
reports of auditory hallucinations, and an inpatient
psychiatric hospitalization. A treating psychiatrist, Dr.
Schaefer, opined that Ms. Oaks experienced severe
limitations. Testing by an examining psychologist, Dr.
Staheli, revealed borderline to below-average abilities.
Another psychologist, Dr. Houston, reviewed the record at Ms.
Oaks' attorney's request and opined that Ms.
Oaks' mental impairments met the A, B, and C criteria for
listing 12.03, which addresses schizophrenia spectrum and
other psychotic disorders. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
App. 1 § 12.03.
other evidence in the record paints a less dire picture of
Ms. Oaks' limitations. When Ms. Oaks was compliant with
her medication regimen, she appeared to do quite well. She
had periods of normal mental status without any suicidal
thoughts or psychotic symptoms, and her treating providers
recorded significant improvement. She was able to go
shopping, go to the DMV, and go on a family vacation to
reviewing State agency psychologist, Dr. Tomori, indicated in
a psychiatric review technique form (PRTF) that Ms. Oaks
experienced mild-to-moderate impairment in the B criteria of
listing 12.03. See Social Security Ruling (SSR)
96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *4 (explaining that the PRTF
is used at steps two and three of the regulatory five-step
sequential evaluation to assess a claimant's limitations
and restrictions from mental impairments in categories
identified in the B and C criteria of the mental impairment
listings). Dr. Tomori opined that Ms. Oaks could sustain
ordinary, routine tasks without special supervision; would
have periodic difficulty carrying out detailed instructions;
would likely have intermittent difficulty sustaining
attention and concentration for extended periods and
performing activities within a schedule; would have
intermittent difficulty interacting with coworkers and
supervisions; would fare best in a relatively isolated work
environment with limited, non-problem-solving interaction
with the public; and would fare best in a low-stress and
well-structured work environment where minimal changes occur
and a consistent routine is present.
followed the Commissioner's five step sequential
evaluation process for disability claims. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4) (outlining the process). As relevant
here, the ALJ found at step two that Ms. Oaks had
“severe” impairments, including schizoaffective
disorder and bipolar disorder. At step three, the ALJ found
that Ms. Oaks did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met a listing, including listing 12.03 for
schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Between steps
three and four, the ALJ assessed Ms. Oaks' residual
functional capacity (RFC), limiting her to understanding,
remembering, and carrying out simple (but not complex) work;
making decisions; attending and dealing appropriately with
work peers, bosses, and occasional routine work changes; no
work involving high production quotas or fast-paced
activities; performing repetitive, routine work of a simple
nature with few variables; and only incidental contact with
the general public. At step five, the ALJ found that this RFC
would allow Ms. Oaks to perform other work existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ thus
concluded at step five that Ms. Oaks was not disabled.
ARGUMENTS ON APPEAL
appeal, Ms. Oaks argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation
of the medical opinion evidence (namely the opinions of
treating psychiatrist Dr. Schaeffer, examining psychologist
Dr. Staheli, and reviewing psychologist Dr. Houston) and
erred when he concluded that Ms. Oaks' schizophrenia did
not meet listing 12.03.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Supreme Court recently reiterated, “[o]n judicial
review, an ALJ's factual findings . . . ‘shall be
conclusive' if supported by ‘substantial
evidence.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139
S.Ct. 1148, 1153 (2019) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).
The threshold for evidentiary sufficiency under the
substantial evidence standard is “not high.”
Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. Substantial evidence is
“more than a mere scintilla”; it means only
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Id. (quotations and citations omitted). Under this
deferential standard, the Court may neither reweigh the
evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.
See, Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir.
2014). The Court's inquiry, “as is usually true in
determining the substantiality of evidence, is case-by-case,
” and “defers to the presiding ALJ, who has seen
the hearing up close.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at
1157. If the evidence is susceptible to multiple
interpretations, the Court “may not displace the
agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views,
even though the court would justifiably have made a different
choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Lax
v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(quotation and citation omitted). That is, in reviewing under
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court must
affirm if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial
evidence and the correct legal standards were used, even if
the Court believes the evidence is “equivocal.”
Nguyen v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1400, 1403 (10th Cir.
Court will briefly discuss the medical opinions and listing