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Villasenor-Diaz v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

July 2, 2013

MARIA ELIDA VILLASENOR-DIAZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN [1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Sam A. Crow, U.S. District Senior 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. The claimant is determined not to be disabled unless she shows she cannot perform her previous work. The fifth 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).

II. History of the case

Plaintiff, a thirty-three-year-old woman with an eleventh grade education, filed applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI based primarily on degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, headaches, obesity, and anxiety. At step one, the administrative law judge (ALJ) found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 15, 2002, the alleged onset date. The ALJ found at step two that the plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, headaches, obesity, and anxiety, but found at step three that those impairments are not on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled.

Accordingly, the ALJ determined plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work and found that she could do various physical tasks, with the following limitations:

the plaintiff can only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can only occasionally perform reaching in all directions, including overhead; can have no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes or vibrations; and is limited to simple unskilled work with only occasional contact with the general public.

Tr. 19. The ALJ found the plaintiff unable to perform her past relevant work, but found her able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, so determined she is not disabled. Tr. 24-25.

III. The ALJ’s Evaluation of Plaintiff’s Credibility

Plaintiff contends that the agency ignored uncontroverted medical evidence in determining her RFC, failed to apply the correct legal standard in determining her credibility, and made selective extrapolations from the record.

When a claimant’s statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms are not substantiated by objective medical evidence, the ALJ must make a finding on the credibility of the claimant’s statements based on a consideration of the entire case record. The ALJ found plaintiff’s testimony not credible to the extent it indicated she was totally disabled from working. That finding is due some deference by this court.

Credibility determinations are peculiarly the province of the finder of fact, and we will not upset such determinations when supported by substantial evidence. However, findings as to credibility should be closely and affirmatively linked to ...

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