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Lakin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

August 6, 2014

MARGIE LAKIN, Plaintiff,


J. THOMAS MARTEN, Chief District Judge.

This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff Margie Lakin supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 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 a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents engaging in substantial gainful activity. Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. Aug. 7, 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 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 going 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 he or she cannot perform his or her previous work or is determined to not be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). 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 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 Lakin protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on August 5, 2010 alleging disability beginning February 24, 2010. The claim was initially denied on November 1, 2010, and upon reconsideration on May 11, 2011. Lakin requested an administrative hearing on June 6, 2011. R. at 123.

Lakin's hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on January 12, 2012. R. at 140. On January 26, 2012, the ALJ issued his decision finding Lakin was not disabled. R. at 13-25. Lakin requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on March 19, 2012. The Council denied the request for review on March 10, 2013. This was the final act of the Commissioner. See Plaintiff's Social Security Brief, Dkt. 11 at 3.

At step one of the analysis, the ALJ found that Lakin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. R. at 18. At step two the ALJ found that Lakin suffered from the following ailments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Lakin's impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. Id. After determining Lakin's RFC (R. at 18-20), the ALJ determined at step four that Lakin did not have any relevant past work history. R. at 24. At step five, the ALJ determined that Lakin could have successfully adjusted to perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. R. at 24. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Lakin has not been under disability since February 24, 2010.

Lakin claims the ALJ failed to follow the treating physician rule in determining her RFC. She argues that her treating physicians, Dr. Richard Gilmartin and Dr. Ronald C. Ferris, supported their opinions with clinical and diagnostic evidence, and that the ALJ did not cite any specific evidence contradicting their opinions. Lakin also claims the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her own credibility, arguing that the ALJ's finding is not supported by the record.

The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence and Lakin's credibility and that the ALJ's assessment of Lakin's RFC is supported by substantial evidence.

III. The ALJ's RFC Findings Are Supported by Substantial Evidence

According to SSR 96-8p, the RFC assessment "must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts... and nonmedical evidence." The ALJ must explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved. The RFC assessment must always consider and address medical source opinions. If the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source, the ALJ must explain why the opinion was not adopted. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *7.[1] It is insufficient for the ALJ to only generally discuss the evidence, but fail to relate that evidence to his conclusions. Cruse v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 49 F.3d 614, 618 (10th Cir. 1995). When the ALJ has failed to comply with SSR 96-8p because he has not linked his RFC determination with specific evidence in the record, the court ...

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