United States District Court, D. Kansas
DEBRA L. CHISHOLM, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
SAM A. CROW, Senior District Judge.
This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff supplemental security income payments. 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 August 2, 2012, administrative law judge (ALJ) Joseph R. Doyle issued his decision (R. at 14-23). Plaintiff alleges that she had been disabled since March 1, 2010 (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 16). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with spinal stenosis and arthralgias (R. at 16). At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment (R. at 17). After determining plaintiff's RFC (R. at 18), the ALJ determined at step four that plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a hostess, reception clerk, office clerk, and toll collector (R. at 20). In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ found that plaintiff can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (R. at 22-23). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 23).
III. Are the ALJ's RFC findings 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. SSR rulings are binding on an ALJ. 20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1); Sullivan v. Zebley , 493 U.S. 521, 530 n.9, 110 S.Ct. 885, 891 n.9, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990); Nielson v. Sullivan , 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993). When the ALJ fails to provide a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing to specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence, the court will conclude that his RFC conclusions are not supported by substantial evidence. See Southard v. Barnhart , 72 Fed.Appx. 781, 784-785 (10th Cir. July 28, 2003). The ALJ's decision must be sufficiently articulated so that it is capable of meaningful review; the ALJ is charged with carefully considering all of the relevant evidence and linking his findings to specific evidence. Spicer v. Barnhart , 64 Fed.Appx. 173, 177-178 (10th Cir. May 5, 2003). 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. Dept. of Health & Human Services , 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 cannot adequately assess whether relevant evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination. Such bare conclusions are beyond meaningful judicial review. Brown v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration , 245 F.Supp.2d 1175, 1187 (D. Kan. 2003).
The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work; she could lift, carry, push or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. Plaintiff can stand or walk up to 6 hours, and sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. Plaintiff cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and balance. Plaintiff is also limited to jobs that do not involve concentrated exposure to extreme vibration (R. at 18).
Dr. Lewis, plaintiff's treating physician, stated on May 26, 2010 that it is certainly a bad idea for plaintiff to do work that involves standing and/or lifting (R. at 390). On February 28, 2012, he stated the following:
She does have spinal stenosis that is proven radiographically and which requires daily pain management. At times she has been required to use a walker when the condition has flared. It is my opinion that less than full time employment is better for her with regard to this diagnosis. I do not expect that she would be able to do more than 2 hours of standing and walking within an 8 hour work day due to exacerbated pain. She should also not lift more than 10 pounds and could only reasonably be expected to lift equal to or less than 10 pounds less than 2/3 of an 8 hour day. It is likely that she will need to miss more than 3 days per month due to increased severity of pain. Continuing in the same body position for an extended period of time often flares her spinal stenosis pain so any employment situation will likely need to provide the flexibility for her to recline or lie down during frequent breaks to assist in alleviating pain and fatigue.
(R. at 407).
The ALJ gave little weight to this opinion, stating that it is not supported by the "thin" record of treatment, and it is generally inconsistent with physical findings of record and with the fact ...