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Carpenter v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 31, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Elizabeth Anne Carpenter ("Plaintiff") seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. In her pleadings, Plaintiff alleges multiple assignments of error with regard to residual functional capacity and credibility, vocational expert testimony, use of additional evidence, the demands of Plaintiff's past employment, and the weight assigned to an opinion of one of Plaintiff's treating healthcare professionals. Upon review, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence contained in the record. As such, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff's medical issues date back to April 6, 2009, when she began complaining of severe neck and back pain, allegedly due to repetitive activity associated with her job as a bank customer service associate. Over the course of the next three years, Plaintiff visited multiple doctors and underwent numerous evaluations, including radiological scans, for her alleged impairments. While initially told that she was not a candidate for surgery, Plaintiff did indeed undergo a cervical discectomy and fusion on June 29, 2012.

Allegedly forced to leave the workplace as a result of her impairments, Plaintiff filed for benefits on February 2, 2010, alleging a disability beginning that same day. Her claim was denied initially on April 16, 2010, and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, which took place on July 8, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge Gary J. Suttles ("ALJ Suttles"). Plaintiff appeared and testified from Columbia, Missouri. ALJ Suttles appeared via video from Houston, Texas.

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was a fifty-year-old mother of four who resided with her husband and oldest adult child. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified that she graduated from high school and completed a minimal amount of college. Plaintiff indicated that her neck and nerve issues prevented her from returning to work and affected her activities of daily living, including grocery shopping, basic housework, and socializing.[1] In an effort to minimize her discomfort, Plaintiff underwent palliative care, including home traction, chiropractic services, massage, use of a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation ("TENS") unit, and pain medication. She never attended physical therapy, citing a lack of health insurance. Plaintiff testified that she could sit for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, lift five pounds, walk half a block, stand for fifteen minutes at a time, and use a keyboard for ten minutes at a time. Plaintiff also stated that she usually required four to five rest periods per day, each lasting thirty to forty-five minutes.

In addition to Plaintiff's testimony, ALJ Suttles also sought the expert testimony of Vocational Expert Byron Pettingill ("VE Pettingill") to determine how, if at all, Plaintiff's impairments and limitations affected her ability to return to the workforce. VE Pettingill described Plaintiff's past relevant work as a customer service representative as semi-skilled, typically performed at either a light or sedentary level. Based on this description, as well as his review of the entire record, ALJ Suttles questioned the VE as to whether a hypothetical individual with certain limitations representative of the Plaintiff's legitimate limitations, including the need for an at-will sit/stand option, would be able to return to Plaintiff's work as a customer service representative. VE Pettingill answered in the affirmative. On cross-examination, Plaintiff's counsel posed additional hypothetical questions that contained limitations that, in the VE's expert opinion, prevented the hypothetical individual from sustaining competitive employment.

On July 27, 2011, ALJ Suttles issued his decision, finding that Plaintiff suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including osteoarthritis, peripheral neuropathy, cervical pain, left knee replacement, headaches, and obesity. Despite these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. More specifically, ALJ Suttles determined that Plaintiff failed to meet either Listing 1.02, which describes major dysfunctions of a joint, or Listing 1.04, which includes all disorders of the spine. ALJ Suttles concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as that term is defined under Social Security Regulations, with the following limitations and/or exceptions: (1) only occasional lifting of twenty pounds and frequent lifting of ten pounds; (2) sit/stand option; (3) walking for only four hours out of an eight-hour workday; (4) only occasional overhead extension with the neck and no excessive repetitive neck movements; (5) use of a headset with receiver for telephone work; (6) occasional climbing of stairs but no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (7) no running; (8) no squatting; and (9) limited exposure to heights, dangerous machinery, and uneven surfaces. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability since February 2, 2010, the alleged onset date, through the date of his decision.

Given this unfavorable result, Plaintiff sought reconsideration of ALJ Suttles' decision from the Appeals Council. In her application, Plaintiff included additional medical evidence relating to the time period between April and September 2012. On October 25, 2012, upon review of this additional evidence and the ALJ's decision, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. As such, the ALJ's July 2011 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

On December 27, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the United States District Court, District of Kansas seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision and the immediate award of benefits or, in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for further consideration. Given Plaintiff's exhaustion of all administrative remedies, her claim is now ripe for review before this Court.

II. Legal Standard

Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is guided by the Social Security Act (the "Act") which provides, in part, that the "findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."[2] The court must therefore determine whether the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard.[3] "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion."[4] The court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]."[5]

An individual is under a disability only if she can "establish that she has a physical or mental impairment which prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful activity and is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months."[6] This impairment "must be severe enough that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience."[7]

Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[8] The steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined, at any step of the evaluation process, that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation under a subsequent step is unnecessary.[9]

The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the Commissioner to assess: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of the alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of severe, impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those severe impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments.[10] If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is the claimant's ability "to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments."[11]

Upon assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity, the Commissioner moves on to steps four and five, which require the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant can either perform her past relevant work or whether she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively.[12] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of her past relevant work.[13] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite her alleged impairments, the claimant could perform other work in the national economy.[14]

III. Analysis

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision on the following grounds: (1) failure to consider additional evidence, (2) failure to properly evaluate Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, and (3) failure to adequately assess the demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work.

A. Failure to Consider Additional Evidence

Plaintiff makes repeated attempts to draw this Court's attention to evidence submitted after the administrative hearing but before the Appeals Council review. This evidence contains Plaintiff's medical records from April to September 2012, most notably, Plaintiff's June 29, 2012, cervical discectomy and fusion. In its October 2012 decision, the Appeals Council noted that this additional information did "not provide a basis for changing the [ALJ's] decision."[15]

In general,

[t]he case law requires only that the Appeals Council consider properly submitted evidence that is new, material, and temporally relevant. If... the Appeals Council explicitly states that it considered the evidence, there is no error, even if the order denying review includes no further discussion. The court takes the ...

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