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Thomas v. Astrue

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

October 4, 2013

MARTIN THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Martin Thomas seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Thomas claims that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed because the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in formulating Thomas's residual functioning capacity by improperly rejecting limitations in a medical source assessment and by failing to adequately discuss medical opinions. Because the Court finds that the ALJ erred by failing to discuss significantly probative limitations, the Court orders that the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and remands this case for further consideration.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Thomas was born on May 9, 1961, and was forty-four years old on the alleged disability onset date. Prior to his alleged disability, Thomas worked as a letter carrier, a trash hauler, and a parts puller. Thomas graduated from high school and completed two years of vocational education. Thomas was not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of review.

In his applications for disability and supplemental security income, Thomas alleged that he was unable to work due to problems with his right ankle, right hip, and lower back. The agency denied Thomas's application both initially and upon reconsideration. Thomas subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ.

At the administrative hearing held in October 2009, Thomas testified regarding his medical conditions. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert who discussed work that Thomas could perform at the light and sedentary exertional levels based upon Thomas's age, education, and work history. Following the hearing, the ALJ ordered Thomas to undergo a consultative examination with Dr. Sushmita Veloor because Thomas had not undergone medical treatment for his conditions since July 2008. After reviewing Dr. Veloor's December 8, 2009 medical assessment and Thomas's medical record, the ALJ denied Thomas's request for benefits.

The ALJ found that Thomas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. The ALJ also found that Thomas had the following severe impairments: "a low back disorder, status post fusion at L5-S1 in 1993; a history of right ankle fracture in the 1980's; a right shoulder disorder; and a history of alcohol abuse." After finding that Thomas did not have an impairment equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ determined that Thomas had the residual functioning capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work. The ALJ found that Thomas was unable to perform any past relevant work but that based upon Thomas's age, education, work experience, and RFC, a finding of "not disabled" was directed by Medical-Vocational Rule 201.21. The ALJ also found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Thomas could perform.

Thomas timely filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision. The Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Thomas's request for review on September 16, 2011. Because Thomas has exhausted all administrative remedies available to him, the Commissioner's decision denying Thomas's application for benefits is now final and this Court has jurisdiction to review the decision.

II. Legal Standard

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Upon review, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard.[1] "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance."[2] The Court is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its opinion for the ALJ.[3] The Court must examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record detracts from the ALJ's findings, to determine if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.[4] Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it is a mere conclusion.[5]

To establish a disability, a claimant must demonstrate a physical or mental impairment that has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of twelve months and an inability to engage in any substantial gainful work existing in the national economy due to the impairment.[6] The ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate whether a claimant is disabled.[7] The claimant bears the burden during the first four steps.[8]

In steps one and two, the claimant must demonstrate that he is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity and that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.[9] "At step three, if a claimant can show that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment, he is presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits."[10] If, however, the claimant does not establish an impairment at step three, the process continues. The ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functioning capacity ("RFC"), and at step four, the claimant must demonstrate that his impairment prevents him from performing his past work.[11] The Commissioner has the burden at the fifth step to demonstrate that work exists in the national economy within the claimant's RFC.[12] The RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both steps four and five.[13]

III. Analysis

Thomas challenges only the ALJ's RFC determination. Thomas argues the ALJ failed to comply with the requirements of Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p because (1) the ALJ did not discuss limitations contained in Dr. Veloor's December 8, 2009 medical source statement that were not included in the RFC, (2) the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Veloor's assessment that Thomas had limitations on his ability to sit and stand/walk, and (3) the ALJ did not adequately address other medical opinions included in Thomas's medical record. The Commissioner argues that the ...


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