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Hodgson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

October 31, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Hodgson seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred and did not properly determine Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), made no specific findings about the functions of Plaintiff's past work, and failed to make the required findings as to Plaintiff's ability to perform his past work. Having reviewed the record, and as described below, the Court reverses and remands the order of the Commissioner.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Michael Hodgson was born on March 8, 1954. On May 13, 2011, Hodgson applied for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging that he became disabled on June 30, 2010. Hodgson alleged that he was unable to work due to pinched nerves in his back and spinal stenosis. The agency denied his applications initially and on reconsideration. Hodgson then asked for a hearing before an ALJ.

ALJ Christina Young Mein conducted an administrative hearing on October 15, 2012, during which Hodgson testified about his medical conditions. The ALJ relied upon vocational expert testimony in determining that Hodgson was capable of performing his past relevant work as a rail car distributor.

On October 25, 2012, the ALJ issued her written decision, finding that Hodgson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date and that Hodgson suffered from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with spinal stenosis. Despite this finding, the ALJ determined that Hodgson did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ found that Hodgson had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1567(a) except that he could occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. In addition, the ALJ stated that Hodgson should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and excessive vibration. The ALJ concluded that Hodgson had not been under a disability since June 30, 2010, through the date of her decision.

Given the unfavorable result, Hodgson requested reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Hodgson's request on February 7, 2014. Accordingly, the ALJ's October 2012 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

Hodgson then filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. He seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand to the Commissioner for a new administrative hearing. Because Hodgson has exhausted all administrative remedies available, this Court has jurisdiction to review the decision.

II. Legal Standard

Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is guided by the Social Security Act (the "Act") which provides, in part, that the "findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."[1] The Court must therefore determine whether the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard.[2] "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion."[3] The Court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]."[4]

An individual is under a disability only if he can "establish that she has a physical or mental impairment which prevents him from engaging in substantial gainful activity and is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months."[5] This impairment "must be severe enough that he is unable to perform his past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience."[6]

Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[7] The steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined, at any step of the evaluation process, that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation under a subsequent step is unnecessary.[8]

The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the Commissioner to assess: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of the alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of severe, impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those severe impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments.[9] If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is the claimant's ability "to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments."[10]

Upon assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity, the Commissioner moves on to steps four and five, which require the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant can either perform his past relevant work or whether he can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively.[11] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of his past relevant work.[12] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step ...

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