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Douglass v. Astrue

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

November 27, 2013

CASS W. DOUGLASS, II, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ERIC F. MELGREN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Cass Douglass 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. Plaintiff claims that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because the ALJ’s credibility determination and RFC assessment are unsupported by substantial evidence in the record and because the ALJ did not meet his burden to prove that other work exists in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform. Because the Court finds that the Commissioner’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence, the Court reverses and remands this case for further consideration.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born in 1975 and received a high school diploma in 1994. Prior to his alleged disability, Plaintiff worked as a heating and air conditioning installer. Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period of review.

In his applications for disability and supplemental security income, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 20, 2006. Plaintiff’s insured status expired on September 30, 2007. Plaintiff alleged disability during this time period due to deep vein thrombosis, superficial phlebitis, and painful blood clots. The agency denied Plaintiff’s application both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ.

The ALJ held an administrative hearing on September 1, 2010, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. During the hearing, Plaintiff testified regarding his medical conditions. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert who testified regarding work that Plaintiff could perform at the sedentary exertion level based on Plaintiff’s age, education, and work history. On September 22, 2010, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Social Security Act because he could perform other work. Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the ALJ’s decision, which the Appeals Council denied on March 2, 2012. Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner and this Court has jurisdiction to review the decision.

II. Legal Standard

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 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

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff satisfied steps one through four of the sequential process. At steps one and two, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity and that he had the medically “severe” impairment of superficial phlebitis. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s condition did not meet or equal a listed impairment. After formulating Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ found under step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of credit checker and surveillance systems security monitor. For that reason, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because he formulated the RFC before making the credibility finding and because the credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in relying on the vocational ...


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