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Dent v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 25, 2014

Lisa Dent, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, District Judge.

Plaintiff Lisa Dent brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, to deny her applications for social security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Act. According to plaintiff, the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician and failed to provide sufficient reasons for doing so. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ erred by failing to provide a narrative discussion explaining how the evidence supports the residual functional capacity assessed by the ALJ. As explained in more detail below, the court rejects plaintiff's arguments and affirms defendant's decision.

I. Procedural Background

In June 2009, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits, alleging disability beginning in February 2009 due primarily to fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease. The applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. At plaintiff's request, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on September 23, 2011, at which both plaintiff and her counsel were present. On October 26, 2011, the ALJ rendered a decision in which she determined that plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act from February 11, 2009 through the date of the decision.[1] Consequently, the ALJ denied all benefits to plaintiff. After the ALJ's unfavorable decision, plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of defendant.

II. Standard of Review

Judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to whether defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether defendant applied the correct legal standards. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1067 (10th Cir. 2013) (citing Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010)). The Tenth Circuit has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1140). In the course of its review, the court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of defendant. Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1185 (10th Cir. 2008).

III. Relevant Framework for Analyzing Claim of Disability and the ALJ's Findings

A "disability" for purposes of the Social Security Act requires both the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity" and "a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Bussell v. Astrue, 463 Fed.Appx. 779, 781 (10th Cir. 2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The Social Security Act further provides that an individual "shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1140 (quoting Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B))).

The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled, see id. at 1139, and the ALJ in this case followed the five-step process. 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. Id. Step one requires the claimant to show that he or she is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. Here, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity and, thus, properly proceeded to the second step. The second step of the evaluation process involves a determination of whether "the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments" that significantly limits his or her ability to perform basic work activities. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). The ALJ in this case concluded that plaintiff's fibromyalgia and depression constituted severe impairments for purposes of the regulations but determined at step three that plaintiff's impairments were not listed or medically "equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Best-Willie v. Colvin, 514 Fed.Appx. 728, 733 (10th Cir. 2013). Thus, the evaluation proceeded to the fourth step, where the claimant must show that the impairment prevents her from performing past work. Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)).

At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work as defined in the regulations with additional postural, environmental and mental limitations. Based on evidence adduced at the hearing from a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff, with those limitations, could not perform her past relevant work as an order clerk, salesperson or floral worker. Thus, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth and final step of the sequential evaluation process-determining whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity "to perform work in the national economy, given her age, education, and work experience." See id. (quoting Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084).

At that point, the ALJ properly shifted the burden of proof to defendant to establish that plaintiff retains a sufficient capacity to perform an alternative work activity and that there are sufficient jobs in the national economy for a hypothetical person with the claimant's impairments. Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1274 (10th Cir. 2009). At this step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled, a conclusion that rested on a finding that plaintiff could perform certain unskilled sedentary occupations available in significant numbers in the national economy, including performing work as a circuit board assembler; document scanner; and credit checker.

IV. Analysis of Plaintiff's Specific Arguments

In her motion, plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician and failed to provide sufficient reasons for doing so. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ erred by failing to provide, as required by Social Security Ruling 96-8p, a narrative discussion explaining how the evidence supports the residual functional capacity assessed by the ALJ. As will be explained, the court rejects both arguments.

In April 2011, plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Christopher Ehly completed an RFC assessment form in which he opined that plaintiff, among other limitations, would need to lie down or recline once during each work day for a period of one to three hours; could stand or walk continuously for less than 15 minutes at one time and less than one hour total throughout an eight hour workday; and could sit continuously for 15 minutes at one time and less than one hour total throughout an eight hour workday. At the hearing, the vocational expert testified that the limitations described by Dr. Ehly in his RFC assessment ...


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