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Hayes v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 20, 2014

LATOYA A. HAYES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Latoya A. Hayes seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act") as amended. In her pleadings, Plaintiff alleges multiple assignments of error, including the administrative law judge's ("ALJ's") finding that Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, that only partial weight should be assigned to the opinion of one of Plaintiff's treating physicians, and that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in the national economy. Upon review, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record. As such, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on August 19, 1987. She is single with four children aged seven, six, three, and two. She and her children live with her mother. Plaintiff attended special education classes through the twelfth grade and has a high school diploma. She has no prior work history.

On April 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income based on limited mental functioning and a learning disability. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On January 30, 2013, Administrative Law Judge Janice Barnes-Williams conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff and her counsel appeared. During the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she takes care of her children daily and performs household chores such as cooking, sweeping, washing dishes, and taking out the trash, but that her mother does the laundry and helps her children with their homework. She further testified that she is able to keep herself and her children groomed. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing, responding to the ALJ's questions about whether a hypothetical individual with certain limitations representative of Plaintiff's limitations would be able to work. The vocational expert testified that such an individual could work.

On May 13, 2013, the ALJ issued her decision, finding that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of major depressive disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, a learning disability, and mild mental retardation. Despite these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. More specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff failed to meet Listing 12.04, which describes anxiety related disorders, and Listing 12.05, which describes intellectual disabilities. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations: (1) occupations that do not require written communication or math skills; (2) only simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements; (3) simple, work-related decisions, with few, if any, workplace changes; (4) no public interaction; and (5) only occasional interaction with co-workers. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability since April 26, 2011, the alleged onset date, through the date of her decision.

Given this unfavorable result, Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On October 8, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the United States District Court, District of Kansas seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision and the immediate award of benefits or, in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for further consideration. Because Plaintiff has exhausted all of her administrative remedies, her claim is now ripe for review before this Court.

II. Legal Standard

Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is guided by the Social Security 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 she can "establish that she has a physical or mental impairment which prevents her 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 she is unable to perform her past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering her 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 RFC, which is the claimant's ability "to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments."[10]

Upon assessing the claimant's RFC, the Commissioner moves on to steps four and five, which require the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant can either perform her past relevant work or whether she 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 her past relevant work.[12] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at ...

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