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Trefethien v. Colvin

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

January 27, 2014

TINA MARIE TREFETHEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ERIC F. MELGREN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Tina Marie Trefethen seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)[1] denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Trefethen claims that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) relied on merely conclusory medical opinions and failed to base its decision upon the substantial evidence in the record. Because the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record, the Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Tina Marie Trefethen was born on May 3, 1973, and was thirty-four years old on the alleged disability onset date. Prior to her alleged disability, Trefethen worked as a personal care attendant. Trefethen has a high school diploma and some college education, and she was not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of review.

On October 20, 2008, Trefethen filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. Both applications alleged a disability beginning on May 1, 2007. In her applications, Trefethen did not allege any physical impairments, but instead alleged that mental limitations impaired her ability to perform work. Each of Trefethen’s claims were denied, both initially on December 30, 2008, and on reconsideration on March 9, 2009. Trefethen then filed a written request for hearing.

At the administrative hearing held in June 2010, Trefethen testified regarding her mental conditions. Trefethen testified that following the alleged disability onset date, she could not get along with people and suffered stress when people told her what to do. The ALJ also considered opinion evidence from Mental Health Center sources as well as reports from state agency psychological consultants, R.E. Schulman, Ph.D., and Charles Warrender, M.D.

On August 13, 2010, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Trefethen’s request for benefits. The ALJ found that Trefethen had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. The ALJ also found that Trefethen had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, rule out personality disorder, and bipolar disorder. After finding that Trefethen did not have an impairment equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ determined that Trefethen had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, with the following non-exertional limitation: “[Trefethen] is moderately limited in the ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions and to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods of time.”[2] The ALJ found that Trefethen was unable to perform any past relevant work but that based upon Trefethen’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, a finding of “not disabled” was required. The ALJ also found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Trefethen could perform.

Trefethen timely filed a request for review of the ALJ’s decision. The Social Security Administration’s Appeals Council denied Trefethen’s request for review on December 9, 2011. Because Trefethen has exhausted all administrative remedies available to her, the Commissioner’s decision denying her 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.[3] “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.”[4] The Court is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its opinion for the ALJ.[5] 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.[6] Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it is a mere conclusion.[7]

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.[8] The ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate whether a claimant is disabled.[9] The claimant bears the burden during the first four steps.[10]

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.[11] “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.”[12] If, however, the claimant does not establish impairment at step three, the process continues. The ALJ assesses the claimant’s RFC, and at step four, the claimant must demonstrate that his impairment prevents him from performing his past work.[13] The Commissioner has the burden at the fifth step to demonstrate that work exists in the national economy within the claimant’s RFC.[14] The RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both steps four and five.[15]

III. Analysis

Trefethen challenges the ALJ’s Decision on three grounds: (1) the ALJ’s evaluation of the medical opinion evidence, (2) the ALJ’s evaluation of Trefethen’s subjective ...


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