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Witchley v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

September 4, 2013



CARLOS MURGUIA, District Judge.

Plaintiff Theodore E. Witchley brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. Finding error in the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")'s analysis of plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the court reverses the decision of the Commissioner and remands the case for further proceedings consistent with this order.

I. Background

Plaintiff alleges that neck, shoulder, knee, and foot pain, as well as mental impairments, make him disabled. Plaintiff protectively filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in 2009. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Following a hearing, an ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated May 17, 2011. On February 16, 2012, 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.

II. 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.Appx. 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.Appx. 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.Appx. 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)). An 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.Appx. 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.

III. Analysis

A. The Administrative Decision

The ALJ conducted a hearing where he and plaintiff's counsel asked questions of plaintiff and a Vocational Expert ("VE"). The ALJ then issued his decision, determining that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2011. (R. at 16.) The ALJ also found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 13, 2005, the alleged onset date.[2] ( Id. ) Based on evidence in the record, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments:

[D]iabetes mellitus, type I; status-post cervical spine surgery; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; status-post left shoulder surgery; status-post right shoulder surgery; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; left knee impairment; status-post left knee surgery; bilateral lower extremity diabetic mellitus neuropathy; osteoarthritis (past medical history); mood disorder not otherwise specified; depressive disorder; bipolar disorder; dysthymia; anxiety disorder; and personality disorder not otherwise specified.

( Id. at 16.) The ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in or medically equal to one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. ...

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