United States District Court, D. Kansas
GARY A. FULTZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, 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 ("Commissioner") denying certain benefits under Sections 1602 and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381a, 1382c(a)(3)(A). For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.
I. Background and Governing Standards
Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income, based on an alleged disability beginning October 1, 2008. In due course, plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and he now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in failing to find certain conditions to be severe impairments; and in failing to credit the testimony of plaintiff and his wife.
The Court's review is guided by the Act. See 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." See 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. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); 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. See 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." See 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. See 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. See 20 C.F.R. § 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." See Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084). In the first three steps, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset, whether he has a severe impairment, and whether the severity of his impairment meets or equals the severity of any impairment in the Listing of Impairments (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). See Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51. After evaluating step three, the Commissioner assesses claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). This assessment is used at both step four and step five of the sequential evaluation process. See 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 his past relevant work; and at step five whether, when also considering the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience, the claimant is able to perform other work in the economy. See Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084). In steps one through four the burden is on the claimant to prove a disability that prevents performance of past relevant work. See Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006); 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 that are within the RFC assessed. See id.; Haddock v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 1084, 1088 (10th Cir. 1999).
A. ALJ's Decision
The ALJ denied plaintiff's claim for benefits, ruling that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. In step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of October 1, 2008. In step two of the analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff's degenerative disc and joint disease of the lumbar spine constituted a severe impairment. The ALJ also found that plaintiff's alleged shoulder pain was not a severe impairment, either by itself or in combination with other impairments, and that such pain did not result in a greater degree of functional limitation than the RFC determined by the ALJ. The ALJ noted that plaintiff had asserted that he suffered from depression, but that such condition was not a medically determinable impairment based on the record in the case. In step three, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's impairments did not equal the severity of the listed impairments.
The ALJ then determined the following RFC for plaintiff:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a); he can lift, carry, push and pull 10 pounds occasionally [and] 5 pounds frequently, stand and walk no more than 2 hours in an 8 hour day and sit no more than 6 hours in an 8 hour day; he needs to be able to alternate sitting and standing in 30 minute intervals; he cannot lift below waist level and is limited to stooping 3-4 times a day; he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, crawl, kneel, or crouch, and he can only perform all other postural activities on an occasional basis.
The ALJ found that the "objective clinical and diagnostic evidence" did not support plaintiff's allegations of greater functional limitations. The ALJ reviewed the medical evidence and noted that no physician had opined that plaintiff had such limitations as alleged. The ALJ stated that plaintiff's allegations were "not entirely credible." The ALJ found that plaintiff had exaggerated his symptoms at the hearing; for instance, the ALJ found that the medical evidence did not support plaintiff's allegations that he had a lot of numbness and could not stand for more than 10 to 20 minutes. The ALJ also found that plaintiff's report of his daily activities (or lack thereof) was inconsistent with evidence in the record. Finally, the ALJ stated that the fact that plaintiff had ceased substantial work several years prior to the alleged onset of the disability suggested that he quit working for reasons unrelated to his impairments and that he could have continued working.
Finally, in steps four and five, the ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work, but that there were jobs that plaintiff could perform based on his RFC. Accordingly, ...