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Moffett v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Kansas

February 20, 2014

MARK MOFFETT, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


SAM A. CROW, Senior District Judge.

This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties.

I. General legal standards

The court's standard of review is set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine only whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, and is satisfied by such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The determination of whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision is not simply a quantitative exercise, for evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it really constitutes mere conclusion. Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). Although the court is not to reweigh the evidence, it will not mechanically accept the findings of the Commissioner. The court should examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision and, on that basis, determine if the substantiality of the evidence test has been met. Glenn, 21 F.3d at 984.

The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant establishes that he has a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents him from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The claimant's physical or mental impairment or impairments must be of such severity that he is not only unable to perform his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the Commissioner will not review the claim further. At step one, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant can show that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment, " which is defined as any "impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. If not, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless the claimant shows that he cannot perform his previous work, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives step four, the fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003).

The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. Nielson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Nielson, 992 F.2d at 1120; Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). The Commissioner meets this burden if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Thompson, 987 F.2d at 1487.

Before going from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both step four and step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e, f, g); 416. 920(a)(4), 416. 920 (e, f, g).

II. History of case

Plaintiff is insured for disability insurance benefits from May 25, 2000 through December 31, 2002.[1] He alleges disability based on ankle pain and mental impairments during that time. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since plaintiff's alleged onset date of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: status post left ankle fracture with open reduction and internal fixation, and degenerative arthritis of the left ankle secondary to that fracture. The ALJ added that plaintiff had been diagnosed with affective disorder of major depression and alcohol abuse disorder. At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the following exceptions:

[Plaintiff] is limited to no more than occasional postural maneuvers such as balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps and stairs. He must avoid climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. He is limited to occupations that do not require exposure to dangerous machinery or unprotected heights. He is limited to the performance of simple, routine, repetitive tasks. In addition, he is limited to not more than occasional interaction with co-workers and the general public. Finally, the occupation must allow him to elevate one leg to footstool height.

Dk. 10, Exh., 2, p. 18. After determining plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Therefore, the ALJ ...

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