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Eagle v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

July 8, 2013



THOMAS MARTEN, District Judge.

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

I. Legal Standard

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 is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004). Evidence is insubstantial when it is overwhelmingly contradicted by other evidence. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994). The court's role is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1185 (10th Cir. 2008). Rather, the court must determine whether the Commissioner's final decision is "free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence." Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). 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.

A claimant is disabled only if he or she can establish having a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that preventing engaging in substantial gainful activity. Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. Aug. 7, 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). The physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the individual cannot perform any of his or her past relevant work and cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering the individual's age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

Pursuant to the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the evaluation process ends. Sorenson v. Bowen, 888 F.2d 706, 710 (10th Cir. 1989). 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 that 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 in step three, the inquiry proceeds. Before continuing on 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.

At step four, the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his or her previous work; the claimant must show that he or she cannot perform such work or 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, 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-80 (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.

II. History of Case

On October 7, 2010, administrative law judge (ALJ) Melvin B. Werner issued his decision. R. at 21-33.[2] Eagle alleges that she has been disabled since March 24, 2008. R. at 21. Eagle meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2012. R. at 23. At step one, the ALJ found that Eagle had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since Eagle's alleged onset date. Id. At step two the ALJ found that Eagle had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Eagle's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment. Id. After determining Eagle's RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Eagle is unable to perform her past relevant work. R. at 31. At step five, the ALJ determined that Eagle could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Eagle was not disabled. R. at 32.

Eagle claims the ALJ erroneously determined her RFC at step four of the process and that the ALJ erroneously evaluated step five of the sequential evaluation process. In her step four argument, Eagle claims the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical opinion of her treating doctor, the ALJ erred because he ignored the GAF score of 50 assigned by Dr. Pulcher, and the ALJ improperly picked and chose parts of the numerous medical opinions to support his conclusion. In her step five argument, Eagle asserts that the ALJ's question for the vocational expert at the hearing was improper because it left out the limiting effects of Eagle's mental impairments. Eagle argues that the ALJ erred by relying on the vocational expert's answer in his step five analysis.

The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's assessment of the medical opinion evidence is supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner also argues that the ALJ's hypothetical question to the vocational expert included all of Eagle's credible limitations.

III. The ALJ's RFC Findings Are Supported by Substantial Evidence

According to SSR 96-8p, the RFC assessment "must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts... and nonmedical evidence." The ALJ must explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved. The RFC assessment must always consider and address medical source opinions. If the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source, the ALJ must explain why the opinion was not adopted. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *7.[3] It is insufficient for the ALJ to only generally discuss the evidence, but fail to relate that evidence to his conclusions. Cruse v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 49 F.3d 614, 618 (10th Cir. 1995). When the ALJ has failed to comply with SSR 96-8p because he has not linked his RFC determination with specific evidence in the record, the court cannot ...

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