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Hamilton v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

August 28, 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 evaluation of the mental demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work, 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 for further proceedings consistent herewith.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for SSD and SSI, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2007. (R. 15, 150-62). In due course, Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. He alleges that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) failed to perform a function-by-function assessment of Plaintiff's abilities when assessing residual functional capacity (RFC); failed to include all of Plaintiff's mental limitations in the hypothetical question for the vocational expert; failed to consider the combined effects of all of Plaintiff's impairments; and made no inquiry into, or finding regarding the mental demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work before finding that Plaintiff is able to perform that work.

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; 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 he has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of his 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). 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 his 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).

In this case, the ALJ determined at step four of the sequential evaluation process that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a cutting machine operator "as actually and generally performed, " denied Plaintiff's applications on that basis, and did not continue to apply the fifth step of the process. (R. 22). The court finds that remand is necessary because the ALJ did not adequately consider Plaintiff's mental abilities or the mental demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work. Since the ALJ did not make an alternative step five finding, the court has no basis to determine whether Plaintiff is able to perform other work in the economy, and whether the step four error is, therefore, harmless.

Each of Plaintiff's claims of error is at least tangentially related to the ALJ's failure to properly consider Plaintiff's mental abilities. Therefore, the court addresses only the ALJ's errors in this regard. Plaintiff may make further arguments regarding his allegations of error, if desired, to the Commissioner on remand.

II. Evaluation of Plaintiff's Mental Impairments

Plaintiff argued that the ALJ erred in failing to make any "inquiry into, or any finding specifying the mental demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work" in phase two of her step four evaluation. (Pl. Br. 21). He argued that the ALJ did not indicate she had considered the combined effects of Plaintiff's impairments which she found not to be severe when she was considering Plaintiff's past relevant work. (Pl. Br. 20). And, Plaintiff argued that the hypothetical questioning of the vocational expert was flawed because it did not include certain mental limitations opined by the state agency psychological consultant. (Pl. Br. 19-20). The Commissioner argued that the ALJ "appears to have given Plaintiff the benefit of the doubt by including moderate limitations on Plaintiff's ability to perform detailed instructions and get along with others." (Comm'r Br. 9). She argued that the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff can perform his past relevant work as a cutting machine operator was based on the vocational expert's testimony, and that although the ALJ only gave "some" weight to Dr. Witt's opinion regarding mental limitations, the limitations opined by Dr. Witt "are compatible with the ALJ's RFC findings." (Comm'r Br. 9).

Each of the Commissioner's arguments ignores that she has promulgated a psychiatric review technique which provides a particular way in which she will evaluate a claimant's mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a, 416.920a. In evaluating the severity of mental impairments at steps two and three, the technique provides for rating the degree of functional limitation in each of four broad mental functional areas: activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id . §§ 404.1520a(c) 416.920a(c). After rating the degree of limitation in each functional area, the Commissioner determines the severity of plaintiff's mental impairments. Id . §§ 404.1520a(d), 416.920a(d).

When the first three functional areas are rated as "none" or "mild, " and the fourth area is rated as "none, " the agency will conclude at step two of the sequential evaluation process that plaintiff's mental impairments are not severe "unless the evidence otherwise indicates that there is more than a minimal limitation in [plaintiff's] ability to do basic work activities." Id . §§ 404.1520a(d)(1), 416.920a(d)(1). If the mental impairments are severe, the technique requires an evaluation of whether the impairments meet or equal a listed impairment by comparing the step two findings and the medical evidence with the criteria of the listings. Id . §§ 404.1520a(d)(2), 416.920a(d)(2). If the Commissioner determines that plaintiff's mental impairments do not meet or equal a listing, she will ...

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