United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
THOMAS MARTEN, Chief District Judge.
This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff Jo Ann Reesman disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties, and the court is prepared to rule.
I. Legal Standard
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 should review 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 is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004). Evidence is insubstantial when it is overwhelmingly contradicted by other evidence. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994). The court's role is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Cowan, 552 F.3d at 1185. Rather, the court must determine whether the Commissioner's final decision is "free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence." Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). The findings of the Commissioner will not be mechanically accepted. Nor will the findings be affirmed by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan, 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D. Kan. 1992). 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.
A claimant is disabled only if he or she can establish that a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents them from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). The physical or mental impairment must be so severe that the individual cannot perform any of his or her past relevant work and cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy considering the individual's age, education and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).
Pursuant to the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the evaluation process ends. Sorenson v. Bowen, 888 F.2d 706, 710 (10th Cir. 1989). At step one, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant can show that he or she is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that they have 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." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment that enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). Before proceeding from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at steps four and five.
If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment in step three, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which point the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his or her previous work; the claimant must show that they cannot perform their previous work or they are determined not to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). The fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g); see Barnhart v. Thomas, 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-80 (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.
II. History of Case
Plaintiff Reesman protectively filed an application for Social Security Disability benefits on December 21, 2009, alleging disability since April 11, 2003. The Social Security Administration denied her claim on February 2, 2010. R. at 91, 95-98. The SSA denied her claim once again upon reconsideration on March 22, 2010. R. at 92, 105-08. Reesman requested an administrative hearing on May 10, 2010. R. at 113.
Reesman's hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Edward C. Werre on November 3, 2010. R. 47-90. On December 17, 2010, the ALJ issued his decision finding Reesman was not disabled. R. at 32-42. Reesman requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on January 12, 2011. R. at 219. The Council denied the request for review on January 13, 2012 and again on November 29, 2012 after receiving additional evidence. R. 20-22, 6-12. This was the final act of the Commissioner. See Plaintiff's Social Security Brief, Dkt. 6 at 2.
In his opinion, the ALJ found that Reesman met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2008. R. at 34. At step one, the ALJ found that Reesman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. R. at 34. At step two the ALJ found that Reesman had the following severe impairments: a history of remote cerebrovascular accidents and obesity. R. at 34-36. At step three, the ALJ determined that Reesman's impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. at 36. After determining Reesman's RFC (R. at 36-41), the ALJ determined at step four that Reesman was able to perform her past relevant work through the date she was last insured. R. at 41. In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ determined that Reesman could have successfully adjusted to perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. at 42. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Reesman was not disabled from October 14, 2005, through her last insured date of June 30, 2008. R. at 42.
Reesman claims the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule in determining her RFC. She argues that her treating physician, Dr. Roger L. Thomas, supported his opinion with clinical and diagnostic evidence and that the ALJ did not cite any specific evidence contradicting Dr. Thomas's opinion. Reesman also claims the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her own credibility, arguing that the ALJ relied on findings that are irrelevant to her disability claim.
The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence and Reesman's credibility and that the ALJ's assessment of Reesman's ...