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Yardley v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

December 20, 2013

JUSTIN YARDLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

CARLOS MURGUIA, District Judge.

On December 1, 2009, plaintiff Justin Yardley protectively 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. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Following a video hearing, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff was not disabled in a decision dated September 8, 2011. On December 4, 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.

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 he makes a disability determination; he need not proceed to subsequent steps if he concludes that a claimant is or is not disabled at an intermediate step. Id. Step one requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that he 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 he has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments" that severely limits his ability to do work. Id. (internal quotation omitted). At this point, if the plaintiff cannot show that his impairments would have more than a minimal effect on his 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 residual functional capacity ("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 his impairment prevents him from performing his 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 video 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 September 30, 2014. The ALJ also found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 2, 2009, the alleged onset date. Based on evidence in the record, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine - status post surgery. (R. at 19.) 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 19-20.)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that plaintiff "can only occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stop, kneel, crouch, crawl and should never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds." (R. at 20.) The ALJ also limited plaintiff to "work in occupations without concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, vibration, work hazards and where he is only required to perform occasional overhead reaching." ( Id. ) Further, the ALJ found plaintiff capable of "simple, unskilled work where he can alternate between sitting and standing at will." ( Id. )

The ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. ( Id. at 24.) 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 found that plaintiff had not been under a disability from May 2, 2009, to the date of the decision. ( Id. at 25.)

B. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in four ways. First, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by making a determination of plaintiff's credibility that was erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence and by ...


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