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Purvis v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

June 19, 2013

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


SAM A. CROW, Senior District Judge.

This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied plaintiff disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties.

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 in the record as a whole, and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). When supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive and must be affirmed. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). 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. Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). 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). But the standard "does not allow a court to 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. " Trimmer v. Dep't of Labor, 174 F.3d 1098, 1102 (10th Cir. 1999).

The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant can establish that he has 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 she is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that 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 her previous work; unless the claimant shows that she cannot perform her previous work, she is 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, 540 U.S. 20 (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 of production shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Miller v. Chater, 99 F.3d 972, 975 (10th Cir. 1996). The Commissioner meets this burden if its decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miller, 99 F.3d at 975.

II. History of the case

Plaintiff, a 33-year-old woman with a high school education, filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments based primarily on bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. The administrative law judge (ALJ) found at step one that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date in 2007. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff has two severe impairments: generalized anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder. At step three, the ALJ determined that those impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

The ALJ then determined plaintiff's RFC, finding she could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, limited only to following simple and low-level detailed instructions (unskilled and semi-skilled instructions) and to superficial interaction with the public. The ALJ then determined at step four that plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a deposit clerk. The ALJ also determined, in the alternative, at step five that plaintiff is able to perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate and weigh the various opinions and improperly assessed her RFC.

III. Did the ALJ properly evaluate and weigh the opinions?

Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in giving controlling weight to the opinion of a Dr. Jonas, a non-treating, non-examining medical expert. Dr. Jonas testified that the medical record supported that Plaintiff had mild impairment with activities of daily living, marked impairment in social functioning, and mild impairment in concentration, persistence, and pace (Tr. 50-51). Dr. Jonas stated that Plaintiff's marked limitation in social functioning was related to her family and treating medical sources, and "she wouldn't actually have a social impairment if we were speaking vocationally." (Tr. 56-57). He noted that she worked several jobs of increasing responsibility for over seven years until she stole from her employer, was criminally charged, and thereafter chose to constrict her functioning. Dr. Jonas also testified that there is no evidence of decompensation and Plaintiff was able to function outside a highly structured living situation (Tr. 52-53).

The ALJ's decision does not say he gave Dr. Jonas's opinion "controlling weight." Instead, it states that he gave "greater weight" to Dr. Jonas's opinion than to the other medical opinions. The ALJ also gave good reason for the weight he assigned to Dr. Jonas's expert medical opinion, stating:

Overall, the undersigned gives greater weight to the opinion of the medical expert as he took into consideration various inconsistencies between the treatment records and the opinion statements of treating mental health sources. The opinion of the medical ...

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