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Bryant v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

May 30, 2013

TINA BRYANT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


SAM A. CROW, Senior District Judge.

This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits. After plaintiff filed his brief (Doc. 12), defendant filed a motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner, and to remand the case for further hearing (Doc. 17-18). Plaintiff filed an objection to the motion to remand (Doc. 19). Defendant then filed a reply brief (Doc. 20).

I. General legal standards

The court's standard of review is set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The court should review the Commissioner's decision to determine only whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Glenn v. Shalala , 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, and is satisfied by such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The determination of whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision is not simply a quantitative exercise, for evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it really constitutes mere conclusion. Ray v. Bowen , 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). Although the court is not to reweigh the evidence, the findings of the Commissioner will not be mechanically accepted. Nor will the findings be affirmed by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan , 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D. Kan. 1992). The court should examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision and, on that basis, determine if the substantiality of the evidence test has been met. Glenn , 21 F.3d at 984.

The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant can establish that they have a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The claimant's physical or mental impairment or impairments must be of such severity that they are not only unable to perform their previous work but cannot, considering their age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the Commissioner will not review the claim further. At step one, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant can show that he or she is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he or she has a "severe impairment, " which is defined as any "impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his or her previous work; unless the claimant shows that he or she cannot perform their previous work, they are determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives step four, the fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Barnhart v. Thomas , 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-380 (2003).

The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. Nielson v. Sullivan , 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Nielson , 992 F.2d at 1120; Thompson v. Sullivan , 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). The Commissioner meets this burden if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Thompson , 987 F.2d at 1487.

Before going from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both step four and step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e, f, g); 416.920(a)(4), 416.920(e, f, g).

II. History of case

On September 13, 2007, administrative law judge (ALJ) Edmund C. Were issued the 1st decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 15-27). Plaintiff sought judicial review of the agency action, and on November 8, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas reversed the decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case for further hearing (Doc. 477-506; Case No. 09-4159-RDR). On March 28, 2012, ALJ James Harty issued a 2nd decision, again finding that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 455-475). Plaintiff has again sought judicial review of the agency action.

III. Should the case be remanded for further hearing or for an award of benefits?

Plaintiff's initial brief raises 3 issues: (1) the date in which plaintiff was last insured was incorrect, (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical source opinions, and (3) the ALJ erred in his credibility analysis (Doc. 12 at 9-16). Defendant's motion to remand concedes that the ALJ erred on the 1st issue, but does not address the remaining two issues (Doc. 18). Plaintiff argues that the unsupported rejection of three medical opinions warrants a remand for an award of benefits (Doc. 19).

When a decision of the Commissioner is reversed, it is within the court's discretion to remand either for further administrative proceedings or for an immediate award of benefits. When the defendant has failed to satisfy their burden of proof at step five, and when there has been a long delay as a result of the defendant's erroneous disposition of the proceedings, courts can exercise their discretionary authority to remand for an immediate award of benefits. Ragland v. Shalala , 992 F.2d 1056, 1060 (10th Cir. 1993). The defendant is not entitled to adjudicate a case ad infinitum until it correctly applies the proper legal standard and gathers evidence to support its conclusion. Sisco v. United States Dept. of Health & Human Services , 10 F.3d 739, 746 (10th Cir. 1993). A key factor in remanding for further proceedings is whether it would serve a useful purpose or would merely delay the receipt of benefits. Harris v. Secretary of Health & Human Services , 821 F.2d 541, 545 (10th Cir. 1987). Thus, relevant factors to consider are the length of time the matter has been pending, and whether or not, given the available evidence, remand for additional fact-finding would serve any useful purpose, or would merely delay the receipt of benefits. Salazar v. Barnhart , 468 F.3d 615, 626 (10th Cir. 2006). The decision to direct an award of benefits should be made only when the administrative record has been fully developed and when substantial and uncontradicted evidence in the record as a whole indicates that the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Gilliland v. Heckler , 786 F.2d 178, 184, 185 (3rd Cir. 1986).

The first issue for the court to consider is the amount of time that the case has been pending. Plaintiff filed her application for disability insurance on July 12, 2005 (R. at 15). Therefore, this case has now been pending nearly 8 years. This case has already been remanded ...

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