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Jefferson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

December 19, 2013




Plaintiff Linda Jefferson seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security[1] denying her 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. Jefferson claims that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by failing to base Jefferson’s residual functioning capacity assessment on the substantial evidence of record. Because the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in assessing Jefferson’s residual functioning capacity, the Court orders that the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Jefferson was 45 on her alleged disability onset date of October 31, 2009. She completed high school and had worked as a school bus driver, machine operator, and dietary aide. Jefferson was not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of review.

In her applications for disability and supplemental security income, Jefferson alleged that she was unable to work because of disability. She alleged that her ability to work was limited by carpal tunnel, tendonitis, swollen hands, asthma, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and internal infections. The agency denied Jefferson’s application initially and on reconsideration. Jefferson then asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge.

At the administrative hearing in May 2011, Jefferson testified about her medical conditions. A vocational expert also testified that Jefferson could not perform her past work, but she could perform light work in existing jobs in the unskilled labor market. The ALJ’s decision reflects that she considered reports from Jefferson’s treating physician and psychiatrists, a nurse practitioner, the agency’s examiner, the agency’s consultant, and Jefferson’s mother. The ALJ denied Jefferson’s request for benefits.

The ALJ found that Jefferson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ also found that Jefferson had the following severe impairments: asthma, history of carpal tunnel syndrome, depression and anxiety. After finding that Jefferson did not have an impairment equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ found that Jefferson had the residual functioning capacity to perform a less than full range of light work. The ALJ found that Jefferson was unable to perform any of her past relevant work, but a finding of “not disabled” was directed by the Medical-Vocational Rules. Based on Jefferson’s age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Jefferson could perform.

The Social Security Administration’s Appeals Council denied Jefferson’s request for review in July 2012. Because Jefferson has exhausted all administrative remedies available to her, the Commissioner’s decision denying Jefferson’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. § 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.[2] “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.”[3] The Court is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its opinion for the ALJ.[4] 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.[5] Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it is a mere conclusion.[6]

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 12 months and an inability to engage in any substantial gainful work existing in the national economy due to the impairment.[7] The ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate whether a claimant is disabled.[8] The claimant bears the burden during the first four steps.[9]

In steps one and two, the claimant must demonstrate that she is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity and she has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. At step three, a claimant is presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits if she can show that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment.[10] If, however, the claimant does not establish impairment at step three, the process continues. The ALJ assesses the claimant’s residual functioning capacity, which is an assessment of what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations.[11] At step four, the claimant must demonstrate that her impairment prevents him from performing his past work.[12] The Commissioner has the burden at the fifth step to demonstrate that work exists in the national economy within the claimant’s residual functioning capacity.[13] The residual functioning capacity assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both steps four and five.[14]

III. Analysis

Jefferson challenges the ALJ’s residual functional capacity (RFC) determination. Jefferson argues that the ALJ erred by failing to conduct the proper analysis. Specifically, Jefferson alleges that the ALJ’s decision did not explain the relationship between the RFC assessment and any specific medical evidence or testimony. The ...

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