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Bell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

May 12, 2015

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


ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Cassandra Bell seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in denying her benefits because substantial evidence did not support the decision. Having reviewed the record, and as described below, the Court affirms the order of the Commissioner.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Cassandra Bell was born on February 19, 1980. On November 16, 2009, Bell applied for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging that she became disabled on August 8, 2009. Bell alleged that she was unable to work due to Graves' disease, left eye blindness, headaches, and back problems. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Bell then asked for a hearing before an ALJ.

ALJ John Langland conducted an administrative hearing on March 2, 2012. Bell was represented by counsel at this hearing, and Bell testified about her medical conditions. The ALJ also heard from a vocational expert.

On June 18, 2012, the ALJ issued his written decision, finding that Bell had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ found that Bell suffered from Graves' disease/induced hypothyroidism status post thyroidectomy, recurrent laryngitis, headaches, sleep apnea, hypertension, history of temporomandibular joint pain, mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, history of functional vision loss on the left, and somatoform disorder/pain disorder. The ALJ found that Bell's impairment or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

The ALJ determined that Bell had the RFC to "to perform a range of light work, ' as that term is otherwise defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)."[1] The ALJ then determined that Bell was unable to perform any past relevant work. After considering Bell's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed in the national economy that Bell could perform. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Bell had not been under a disability from August 8, 2009, through the date of his decision.

Given the unfavorable result, Bell requested reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Bell's request on June 19, 2013. Accordingly, the ALJ's June 2012 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

Bell then filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. She seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision. Because Bell 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."[2] 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.[3] "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."[4] The Court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]."[5]

An individual is under a disability only if he can "establish that [he] 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."[6] 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."[7]

Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, ...

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