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Buckles v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 9, 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 no error in the Commissioner's decision, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING that decision.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for SSD and SSI, alleging disability beginning May 3, 2011. (R. 11, 79-84). In due course, Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. She claims that substantial evidence does not support the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment, and that the ALJ did not provide specific, legitimate reasons to discount the credibility of Plaintiff's allegations of symptoms.

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 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 no error in the decision at issue for the reasons enumerated below. Because a credibility determination is a necessary part of an RFC assessment, the court begins its analysis with consideration of Plaintiff's arguments regarding the credibility determination. It then proceeds to her arguments that the record evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC assessment.

II. The Credibility Determination

Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ discounted the credibility of her allegations of disabling symptoms for only two reasons, because Plaintiff has a financial interest in receiving disability benefits, and because there are certain evidentiary inconsistencies. Plaintiff claims that this is error requiring remand because a financial interest in receiving benefits applies to the allegations of every claimant, and because the ALJ's analysis of the alleged evidentiary inconsistencies is not specific and is incapable of meaningful review. The Commissioner agrees that every claimant has a financial interest in receiving benefits, but argues that the ALJ's statement to that effect was merely dicta indicating why a claimant's allegations cannot be taken at face value. She argues that the regulations merely require that the ALJ identify in her decision the inconsistencies in the record which justify a finding that the claimant's allegations are not credible. Finally, the Commissioner notes that the ALJ identified evidence "showing that the objective findings, treatment records, and examination findings did not lend support to Plaintiff's credibility" (Comm'r Br. 5), points to the inconsistencies identified by the ALJ, and argues that the ALJ properly evaluated credibility in accordance with the regulations and policies. The court agrees with the Commissioner that the ALJ did consider and identify objective findings that do not lend support to Plaintiff's allegations of debilitating pain and functional limitations.

A. The ALJ's Credibility Evaluation

The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments "could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, " but that her "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible." (R. 18). She noted that Plaintiff "does have degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and osteoarthritis in her left ankle, however, the objective medical evidence does not support the claimant's allegations of debilitating pain and functional limitations." Id . The ALJ then summarized the medical evidence, and pointed out that medical evidence which is inconsistent with Plaintiff's allegations: (1) "there is no indication in the record that the claimant's degenerative lumbar changes result in significant stenosis or nerve root irritation;" there was (2) full range of motion in Plaintiff's ankle; (3) examination of Plaintiff's back was largely unremarkable, and (4) Plaintiff was able to bend six inches to the floor; (5) straight leg raising was negative, (6) there was no muscle atrophy, and no motor, reflex, or sensory abnormalities; (7) Plaintiff was able to ambulate without an assistive device, and had only mild difficulties with orthopedic maneuvers; (8) testing revealed only moderate pulmonary obstruction, administration of a bronchodilator produced significant improvement in lung function, (9) chest x-rays were negative, and examination revealed clear lungs, slightly diminished breath sounds, and no use of accessory muscles for respiration; (10) sleep studies show only mild sleep apnea, and Plaintiff tolerates the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine well; and, (11) medical records show that Plaintiff has had no specialized mental health treatment, or inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. (R. 18-19). The ALJ stated her findings regarding credibility:

A trier of fact is required to determine a witness' credibility in consideration of all the circumstances, including the extent to which her testimony is contradicted or corroborated by other evidence, and any other circumstances that tend to shed light upon her credibility. Additionally, the [(12)] claimant's financial interest in the outcome, and the evidentiary inconsistencies discussed above detract from reliance upon the claimant's testimony as a basis for decision-making. The undersigned finds that although she has medically determinable severe impairments, these impairments do not cause the degree of limitations alleged by the claimant. When evaluated, the [(13)] claimant's subjective complaints are found to ...

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