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Campbell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 3, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, District Judge.

Plaintiff seeks review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter Commissioner) denying Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under sections 216(i), 223, 1602, and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1381a, and 1382c(a)(3)(A) (hereinafter the Act). Finding error in the Commissioner's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment, the court ORDERS that the decision shall be REVERSED and that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) REMANDING the case for further proceedings consistent herewith.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for SSD and SSI benefits on July 30, 2009, alleging disability beginning August 1, 1996. (R. 16, 129-37). 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 many respects in assessing her RFC.

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 she 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 (2011); 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), 416.920(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).

The court finds that remand is necessary because the ALJ failed to adequately explain the bases for her RFC assessment.

II. RFC Assessment

Plaintiff claims the ALJ failed to perform a function-by-function RFC assessment and failed to discuss the specific sitting, standing, and walking limitations of which Plaintiff is capable. She points out that the medical opinions included limitations with regard to sitting, standing, and walking and that the ALJ accorded particular weight to those opinions but did not provide a narrative discussion explaining how she arrived at restrictions which were different from those opined by the medical sources. Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ erred in failing to explain how she determined that Plaintiff is limited to minimal interaction with co-workers and to only brief and superficial contact with the general public, but has no limitations with regard to interaction with supervisors.

The Commissioner argues that substantial weight supports the ALJ's RFC assessment. She points out that the ALJ found Plaintiff's allegations of symptoms are not credible, and argues that the record evidence supports that finding. She argues that the ALJ properly discounted the third party opinion of the friend with whom Plaintiff lived. The Commissioner summarizes the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinions, and then argues that "the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's functional limitations." (Comm'r Br. 12). She points out that the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in the regulations, and quotes the regulations to which the ALJ cited. She notes that the ALJ did not merely express RFC in terms of exertional level, but also "discussed a number of nonexertional capacities, " id., such as postural, environmental, and mental limitations. Id . at 13. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ provided a four-page narrative discussion which described the medical facts and nonmedical evidence supporting her RFC assessment, that an RFC assessment is based on all of the evidence, and that "an ALJ is not required to provide a pinpoint citation to medical evidence for each RFC finding." Id . at 13-14 (citing Chapo v. Astrue , 682 F.3d 1285, 1288 (10th Cir. 2012); Thongleuth v. Astrue, No. 10-1101-JWL , 2011 WL 1303374, at *13 (D. Kan. Apr. 4, 2011); Castillo v. Astrue, No. 10-1052-JWL , 2011 WL 13627 at *10-11 (D. Kan. Jan. 4, 2011); and 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945).

The essence of Plaintiff's claim of error is that the ALJ's narrative discussion did not explain how she arrived at specific RFC limitations despite according particular weight to the medical opinions of record which contained conflicting limitations and despite that the record evidence suggests additional limitations. The Commissioner is correct to argue that an RFC assessment must be based upon all of the record evidence and that an ALJ need not cite to record evidence for each RFC finding. However, the Commissioner's argument misses the point of Plaintiff's allegations-that the ALJ did not provide an adequate narrative discussion to resolve the ambiguities present in ...

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