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Oaks v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah

August 29, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Paul Kohler United States Magistrate Judge.

         This 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. 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.

         But 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 Disneyland.

         A 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.

         The ALJ 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.


         On 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.


         As the 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. 1994).


         The Court will briefly discuss the medical opinions and listing 12.03.

         A. The ...

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