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Criger v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 16, 2015

DARLA MARIE CRIGER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Darla Criger seeks review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Criger alleges that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed because the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by failing to adopt the opinions of her treating physician in forming her residual functioning capacity. Criger also alleges that the ALJ's credibility determination was unsupported by the substantial evidence of the record and that the ALJ's decision was unsupported by the substantial evidence of the record. The Court finds that the ALJ did not err in assessing Criger's residual functioning capacity and that the ALJ's credibility determination and decision were supported by substantial evidence. Having reviewed the record, and as described below, the Court affirms the order of the Commissioner.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Darla Criger was born January 24, 1965. On November 5, 2010, Criger protectively filed for disability insurance benefits, and on February 11, 2011, protectively filed for supplemental security income alleging a disability onset date of November 18, 2010. Criger alleged that she was unable to work because of ankylosing spondylitis with kyphosis of the cervical and thoracic spine, a back disorder characterized by inflammation of the vertebrae and an abnormal curvature of the spine. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration in 2011. Criger then asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge.

ALJ Gilbert Rodriguez conducted an administrative hearing by video on September 9, 2011. Criger was represented by counsel at this hearing, and she testified about her medical conditions. A vocational expert also testified.

On November 23, 2011, the ALJ issued his written decision, finding that Criger had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of November 18, 2010. The ALJ found that Criger suffered from the severe impairment of ankylosing spondylitis with kyphosis of the cervical and thoracic spine. The ALJ found that Criger's impairment did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

The ALJ determined that Criger had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, which involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and sitting with occasional walking and standing. The ALJ found that Criger could stand for about two hours and sit for at least six hours in an eight-hour workday. The ALJ found that Criger was not limited in pushing or pulling with her arms and legs, was limited to occasional postural activities, and could not reach overhead. The ALJ found that Criger had no communicative, visual, or environmental limitations.

The ALJ then determined that Criger was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. But after considering Criger's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that Criger could perform. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Criger had not been under a disability from November 18, 2010, through the date of his decision, November 23, 2011.

Criger requested reconsideration of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the appeals council on August 14, 2013. Accordingly, the ALJ's November 2011 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Criger then filed a complaint in this Court, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's decision. Because Criger has exhaused 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, 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 residual functional capacity, 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 residual functional capacity, 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.[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 step ...


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