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Coffland v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 17, 2014

CELESTE COFFLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, District Judge.

Plaintiff seeks review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter Commissioner) denying Social Security Disability (SSD)[2] benefits under sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423 (hereinafter the Act). Finding no error, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING the decision.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for SSD, alleging disability beginning August 10, 2009. (R. 11, 159-62). In due course, Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. She alleges the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in assessing her residual functional capacity (RFC) by failing to follow the requirements of Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p.

The court's review is guided by the Act. Wall v. Astrue , 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Section 405(g) of the Act provides that in judicial review "[t]he findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court must determine whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether he applied the correct legal standard. Lax v. Astrue , 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); accord, White v. Barnhart , 287 F.3d 903, 905 (10th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but it is less than a preponderance; it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Wall , 561 F.3d at 1052; Gossett v. Bowen , 862 F.2d 802, 804 (10th Cir. 1988).

The court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." Bowman v. Astrue , 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)); accord, Hackett v. Barnhart , 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Nonetheless, the determination 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 constitutes mere conclusion. Gossett , 862 F.2d at 804-05; Ray v. Bowen , 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989).

The Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential process to evaluate a claim for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Wilson v. Astrue , 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010) (citing Williams v. Bowen , 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988)). "If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary." Wilson , 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax , 489 F.3d at 1084). In the first three steps, the Commissioner determines whether claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset, whether she has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of her impairment(s) meets or equals the severity of any impairment in the Listing of Impairments (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). Williams , 844 F.2d at 750-51. After evaluating step three, the Commissioner assesses claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). This assessment is used at both step four and step five of the sequential evaluation process. Id.

The Commissioner next evaluates steps four and five of the sequential process - determining at step four whether, in light of the RFC assessed, claimant can perform her past relevant work; and at step five whether, when also considering the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience, claimant is able to perform other work in the economy. Wilson , 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax , 489 F.3d at 1084). In steps one through four the burden is on Plaintiff to prove a disability that prevents performance of past relevant work. Blea v. Barnhart , 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006); accord, Dikeman v. Halter , 245 F.3d 1182, 1184 (10th Cir. 2001); Williams , 844 F.2d at 751 n.2. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs in the economy which are within the RFC assessed. Id .; Haddock v. Apfel , 196 F.3d 1084, 1088 (10th Cir. 1999).

III. RFC Assessment

Plaintiff claims error in the RFC assessment because the ALJ did not explicitly relate the RFC assessed "to any specific medical evidence or testimony;" did not "provide any reasonable narrative discussion as to how the medical evidence supports his arbitrary [RFC] conclusions" (Pl. Br. 10)[3]; erroneously accorded "significant weight" to the opinions of the state agency medical consultants, Dr. Bullock and Dr. Siemsen, but only "some weight" to the opinion of the state agency psychological consultant, Dr. Maxfield, id. at 11-13; ignored "pertinent and relevant facts in the form of the exertional and non-exertional limitations associated with Coffland's condition, " and erroneously discounted "the credibility of Coffland regarding the effects of both her physical & mental conditions on her ability to work, [by] completely ignor[ing] significant factors affecting a true RFC." (Pl. Br. 13). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the credibility of Plaintiff's allegations of symptoms (Comm'r Br. 9-11), properly weighed the medical opinions, id. at 12-14, and properly linked his RFC assessment to the record evidence. Id. at 14.

A. Standard for Assessing RFC

RFC is an assessment of the most a claimant can do on a regular and continuing basis despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a); see also, White , 287 F.3d at 906 n.2. It is an administrative assessment, based on all the evidence, of how a claimant's impairments and related symptoms affect her ability to perform work-related activities. Id .; see also SSR 96-5p, West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 126 (Supp. 2013) ("The term residual functional capacity assessment' describes an adjudicator's findings about the ability of an individual to perform work-related activities."); SSR 96-8p, West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., 144 (Supp. 2013) ("RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s)... may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities."). The Commissioner has provided examples of the types of evidence to be considered in making an RFC assessment, including: medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, effects of treatment, reports of daily activities, lay evidence, recorded observations, medical source statements, effects of symptoms, attempts to work, need for a structured living environment, and work evaluations. SSR 96-8p, West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 147 (Supp. 2013).

Although an ALJ is not an acceptable medical source qualified to render a medical opinion, "the ALJ, not a physician, is charged with determining a claimant's RFC from the medical record." Howard v. Barnhart , 379 F.3d 945, 949 (10th Cir. 2004). "And the ALJ's RFC assessment is an administrative, rather than a medical determination." McDonald v. Astrue , 492 F.Appx. 875, 885 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing SSR 96-05p). Because RFC assessment is made based on "all of the evidence in the record, not only the medical evidence, [it is] well within the province of the ALJ." Dixon v. Apfel, No. 98-5167 , 1999 WL 651389, at *2 (10th Cir. Aug. 26, 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). Moreover, the final responsibility for determining RFC rests with the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2), 404.1546.

The Commissioner issued SSR 96-8p "[t]o state the Social Security Administration's policies and policy interpretations regarding the assessment of residual functional capacity (RFC) in initial claims for disability benefits." West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 143 (Supp. 2013). The ruling includes narrative discussion requirements. Id. at 149. The discussion is to cite specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence to describe how the evidence supports each conclusion, discuss how the plaintiff is able to perform sustained work activities, and describe the maximum amount of each work activity the plaintiff can perform. Id . The discussion must include an explanation how any ambiguities and material inconsistencies in the evidence were considered and resolved. Id . It must include consideration of the credibility of plaintiff's allegations of symptoms and ...


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