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Hutchins v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 9, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


SAM A. CROW, Senior District Judge.

This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties.

I. General legal standards

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 requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, and is satisfied by such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The determination of 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 really constitutes mere conclusion. Ray v. Bowen , 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). Although the court is not to reweigh the evidence, 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.

The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant can establish that they have a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The claimant's physical or mental impairment or impairments must be of such severity that they are not only unable to perform their previous work but cannot, considering their age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the Commissioner will not review the claim further. 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." At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he or she has 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." At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his or her previous work; unless the claimant shows that he or she cannot perform their previous work, they are determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives step four, the fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Barnhart v. Thomas , 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-380 (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. Before going from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both step four and step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e, f, g); 416.920(a)(4), 416.920(e, f, g).

II. History of case

On February 24, 2012, administrative law judge (ALJ) Joseph R. Doyle issued his decision (R. at 12-21). Plaintiff alleges that she had been disabled since December 7, 2010 (R. at 12). Plaintiff is insured for disability insurance benefits through December 31, 2014 (R. at 14). At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (R. at 14). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, history of a right hip replacement, history of left ankle repair, history of sarcoidosis and asthma (R. at 14). At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment (R. at 15). After determining plaintiff's RFC (R. at 15), the ALJ determined at step four that plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as a customer service representative (R. at 20). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 21).

III. Did the ALJ err in his consideration of the opinions of the treating physicians?

When an ALJ rejects a treating physician's opinion, he must give specific, legitimate reasons for doing so. Hamlin v. Barnhart , 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004); Robinson v. Barnhart , 366 F.3d 1078, 1082 (10th Cir. 2004).

The record in this case includes two treating physician opinions, Dr. Claiborne and Dr. Strickland. Dr. Claiborne opined on November 14, 2011 that plaintiff could only stand/walk for 2 hours in an 8 hour day, and could only sit for 2 hours in an 8 hour day (R. at 287-288). Dr. Claiborne further opined on December 6, 2011 that plaintiff can only work for 1-2 hours a day, and because of asthma, must be in a clean environment as far as air quality (R. at 329-330). Dr. Strickland opined on November 8, 2011 that plaintiff could stand/walk for 4 hours in an 8 hour workday, and could sit for 8 hours in a workday, but also opined that plaintiff would "possibly use a cane or walker if painful" for ambulation or balance (R. at 285).

The ALJ stated the following regarding the opinions of Dr. Clairborne and Dr. Strickland:

The undersigned considered the opinions offered by the claimant's treating physician Richard Clairborne, M.D. Dr. Clairborne opined that the claimant could not perform even sedentary work on a sustained basis. Dr. Clairborne opined that the claimant would likely miss more than two or three days of work per month (Exhibit B9F, B13F). The undersigned also considered the opinion offered by treating physician Justin Strickland, M.D. who found that the claimant could not stand and/or walk for even two hours total in an eight-hour workday. The undersigned gives these opinions little weight as they are not consistent with the objective medical record or the claimant's acknowledged activities. The claimant has osteoarthritis of the knees, which does not require surgery or narcotic pain medication. She reports significant relief from steroid injections. On exam, she has no tenderness or swelling of any joints. She has full, non-painful range of motion of all joints. She participates in aerobics three days a week. This evidence establishes that the claimant is able to stand and/or walk for up to two hours a day. Further, her osteoarthritis of the knees does not impose any significant sitting limitation, as there is no weight bearing on the joints while in the ...

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