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Beckwith v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Kansas

March 19, 2015

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


John W. Lungstrum, United States District Judge

Plaintiff seeks review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter Commissioner) denying Disability Insurance benefits (DIB) 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, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING the Commissioner’s decision.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning October 1, 2008. (R. 23, 218-31). Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff alleges the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in her residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinions of three psychologists regarding the qualitative nature of Plaintiff’s ability to interact with supervisors and co-workers.

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 relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also, 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 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 ALJ’s decision.

II. Evaluation of the Psychologists’ Medical Opinions

Plaintiff notes that three psychologists provided opinions regarding Plaintiff’s mental impairments--two non-treating sources, Dr. DeGrandis, and Dr. Allen, and one non-examining source, Dr. Hill-Keyes. She points out that Dr. DeGrandis, who examined Plaintiff, opined that Plaintiff could follow simple instructions but only in a supportive environment, that Dr. Allen who also examined Plaintiff, opined that “she would be prone to problems responding appropriately to supervisors and co-workers if irritated, ” and that Dr. Hill-Keyes, who reviewed the record, opined that she “could only handle incidental interpersonal interaction.” (Pl. Br. 13) (citing R. 31, 112, 140-41, 445, 489).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s evaluation of these medical opinions is inconsistent with the limitations that the ALJ allegedly based upon them. She acknowledges that the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is able to tolerate only infrequent interactions with supervisors and co-workers, but she argues that this quantitative, temporal limitation (infrequent interactions) does not adequately account for Dr. Allen’s qualitative limitation that when Plaintiff is irritable she “would not be able to communicate appropriately with supervisors regardless of how infrequently” she were exposed to them. (Pl. Br. 13) (emphasis added). She argues that her understanding is supported by Dr. DeGrandis’s opinion that Plaintiff can follow simple instructions but only in a supportive environment and the vocational expert’s testimony that such a limitation would preclude all work, and by her previous employer’s opinion that Plaintiff is an “emotional wreck” who had great difficulty accepting instructions and reasonable criticism, and is a nice person who “just has issues.” (Pl. Br. 15) (quoting R. 250, 252).

The Commissioner responds that the ALJ correctly evaluated the psychologists’ medical opinions, and that substantial record evidence supports that evaluation. She argues that in light of all the record evidence, including Dr. Allen’s examination, Dr. DeGrandis’s examination and opinion, and Dr. Hill-Keyes’s opinion, “the ALJ reasonably construed Dr. Allen’s opinion as allowing at least infrequent interaction with supervisors and coworkers.” (Comm’r Br. 12) (citing R.30). In her Reply Brief, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ in this case “never explained how she accounted for those instances when [Ms.] Beckwith’s irritability would get the ...

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