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Jackson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 31, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


J. THOMAS MARTEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Tamera Lynn Jackson has applied for Social Security disability and supplemental security income benefits. Her application was denied by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Christina Young Mein on June 13, 2012, a decision affirmed by the Appeals Council on November 1, 2012. There are two allegations of error by Jackson. First, she contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Second, she argues that the vocational evidence supports a finding of disability.

Plaintiff-claimant Jackson was born on September 26, 1960. She has stated that she became disabled beginning June 16, 2009. She has a high school education, and has previously worked as a bindery worker, a certified nurse assistant, and a certified medication aide. She has cited a variety of ailments, including depression and lower back injury. The detailed facts of the case, which are incorporated herein, are set forth independently in the ALJ's opinion (Tr. 13-29), Jackson's brief (Dkt. 12, at 1-4), and set forth seriatim in the argument section of the Commissioner's response (Dkt. 17, at 5-15).

The Commissioner determines whether an applicant is disabled pursuant to a five-step sequential evaluation process (SEP) pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. The applicant has the initial burden of proof in the first three steps: she must show that she is engaged in substantial gainful activity, that she has a medically-determinable, severe ailment, and whether that impairment matches one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt P., app. 1. See Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). If a claimant shows that she cannot return to her former work, the Commissioner has the burden of showing that she can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). See Channel v. Heckler, 747 F.2d 577, 579 (10th Cir. 1984).

The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. 405(g) of the Social Security Act. Under the statute, the Commissioner's decision will be upheld so long as it applies the "correct legal standard, " and is supported by "substantial evidence" of the record as a whole. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994).

Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is satisfied by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The question of whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision is not a mere quantitative exercise; evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence, or in reality is a mere conclusion. Ray, 865 F.2d at 224. The court must scrutinize the whole record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan, 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D. Kan. 1992).

This deferential review is limited to factual determinations; it does not apply to the Commissioner's conclusions of law. Applying an incorrect legal standard, or providing the court with an insufficient basis to determine that correct legal principles were applied, are grounds for reversal. Frey v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 512 (10th Cir. 1987).

In the present case, the ALJ determined that Jackson suffered from severe impairments in the form of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post lumbar fusion, degenerative changes of the cervical spine, mild degenerative changes of the left knee, mild dysfunction of the vestibular system, asthma, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a personality disorder. These impairments did not meet or exceed the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. The ALJ determined that Jackson retained the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally, and ten pounds frequently. Jackson can stand and walk for six hours of an eight-hour day, and sit the same length of time. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance and stoop, but not kneel, crouch or crawl. She must also avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, beat, or vibrations, and avoid dusts, gases, fumes odors and poorly ventilated areas. She can do simple, routine and repetitive tasks, but must avoid frequent interaction with the public and coworkers.

In the present appeal, Jackson challenges the ALJ's determination that her subjective description of her impairments lacked credibility. The ALJ found that Jackson's credibility was undermined by a variety of considerations.

As to this issue, ALJ first found that, following the May 27, 2010 back surgery by Dr. Michael Smith, Jackson's X-rays indicated a normal alignment of the disc space with only mild degenerative changes. Jackson's neurological symptoms improved, and had normal motor function, sensation and reflexes. The objective medical assessments did not support the degree of limitations asserted by Jackson. In addition, the ALJ noted that Jackson had not sought more than "minimal treatment" for the alleged neck and knee pain. (Tr. 22). Jackson also missed many physical therapy appointments. There was no ongoing treatment for her alleged neck pain. These determinations are fully supported in the record.

The ALJ also found that Jackson's subjective complaints of pain were not credible based on her reported activities of daily living. She wrote:

As noted above, the claimant testified that she lives alone and is able to independently perform all of her activities of daily living. The claimant completed form for the agency reflecting that she was able to make her own meals, perform her own household chores and shop for her own groceries. She reported going to church two times a week.

(Tr. 23).

The plaintiff does challenge this latter conclusion, noting that the underlying evidence showed only that she attended church twice a month, rather than twice a week. The court finds that the plaintiff has failed to demonstrate any substantial error in the decision of the ALJ. In the cited passage, the ALJ explicitly ...

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