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Torkelson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

July 26, 2013

AMY S. TORKELSON, Plaintiff,



Plaintiff Amy S. Torkelson alleges that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), depression, a left shoulder injury, and obesity render her disabled. Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. Under Title II, plaintiff requests disability insurance benefits. Under Title XVI, plaintiff requests supplemental security income benefits. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated June 24, 2011. On November 15, 2011, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff’s request for review. Thus, the ALJ’s decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to properly establish plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (2) failing to properly assess plaintiff’s credibility. After reviewing the record, the court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

I. Legal Standard

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) this court applies a two-pronged review to the ALJ’s decision. This review determines (1) whether the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and (2) whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla” and “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Hunter v. Astrue, 321 F. App’x 789, 792 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007)). In its analysis, the court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See White v. Massanari, 271 F.3d 1256, 1257 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing Casias v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)). On the other hand, the court must examine the entire record—including any evidence that may detract from the decision of the ALJ. Jaramillo v. Massanari, 21 F. App’x 792, 794 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994)).

Plaintiff bears the burden of proving disability. Hunter, 321 F. App’x at 792. A disability requires an impairment—physical or mental—that renders one unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Id. (quoting Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217 (2002)). Impairment, as defined under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), is a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”

The ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate disability claims. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). But the ALJ may stop once she makes a disability determination; she need not proceed to subsequent steps if she concludes that a claimant is or is not disabled at an intermediate step. Id. Step one requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that she is not engaged in substantial gainful employment activity. Id. If the plaintiff meets this burden, then the ALJ proceeds to the second step. Step two requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that she has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments” that severely limits her ability to do work. Id. (internal quotation omitted). At this point, if the plaintiff cannot show that her impairments would have more than a minimal effect on her ability to do work, then the ALJ may determine plaintiff is not disabled. Id. at 751. If the plaintiff meets the de minimis showing, then the ALJ proceeds to step three. Id.

At step three, the ALJ compares the plaintiff’s impairment to the “listed impairments”— impairments that the Secretary of Health and Human Services recognizes as severe enough to preclude substantial gainful activity. Id. If the plaintiff’s impairment matches one on the list, then a finding of disability is made. Id. If not, the ALJ advances to step four. Id. Before step four, however, the ALJ must assess the plaintiff’s RFC. Baker v. Barnhart, 84 F. App’x 10, 13 (10th Cir. 2003) (citing Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996)). The ALJ uses this RFC for steps four and five. At step four, the plaintiff must demonstrate that her impairment prevents her from performing her past work. Williams, 844 F.2d at 751. If this showing is made, the ALJ moves to the fifth and final step. Id. Here, the burden shifts to the ALJ. Id. The ALJ must—considering the plaintiff’s RFC and vocational factors of age, education and work experience—show that the plaintiff can perform some work that exists in large numbers in the national economy. Id.

II. Analysis

A. The Administrative Decision

The ALJ conducted a hearing where she and plaintiff’s counsel asked questions of plaintiff and a Vocational Expert (“VE”). The ALJ then issued her decision, determining that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2014. (R. at 13.) The ALJ also found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantially gainful activity since February 11, 2008, the alleged onset date. (Id.) Based on evidence in the record, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: ADHD, major depressive disorder, left shoulder impingement, bilateral epicondylitis, and obesity. (Id. at 13–14.) The ALJ then found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in or medically equal to one of the listed impairments. (Id. at 14–15 (specifically citing listings 1.02, 12.02, and 12.04).)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), in that plaintiff “can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday; and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday.” (Id. at 15–16.) The ALJ also limited plaintiff to “no overhead reaching and simple, routine and repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements involving only simple work-related decisions with few, if any workplace changes.” (Id.) Further, the ALJ limited plaintiff to “only occasional interaction with the public” and found that she “can work around co-workers throughout the day, but with only occasional interaction with co-workers.” (Id.)

The ALJ found that, although plaintiff had worked several jobs in the past fifteen years, plaintiff was at each job for only a short time. (Id. at 21.) The ALJ noted that she gave plaintiff “the benefit of the doubt” and found that she had no past relevant work. (Id.) Nevertheless, the ALJ determined that plaintiff would be able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ ...

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