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Coffland v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 17, 2015

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


CARLOS MURGUIA, District Judge.

Plaintiff Celeste M. Coffland seeks disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff was not disabled, and that finding stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in determining her migraine headaches were not severe and that the ALJ failed to provide a narrative discussion of how the evidence of record supported the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") findings. For the reasons stated below, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

I. Legal Standard

The court must determine whether the Commissioner's final decision is "free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence." Walls v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Accordingly, this court applies a two-pronged review of the ALJ's decision: (1) Are the factual findings supported by substantial evidence in the record? (2) Did the ALJ apply the correct legal standards? Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). "Substantial evidence" is a term of art, meaning "more than a mere scintilla" and "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Astrue, 321 F.Appx. 789, 792 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007)). When evaluating whether the standard has been met, the court is limited; it may neither reweigh the evidence nor replace the ALJ's judgment with its own. Bellamy v. Massanari, 29 F.Appx. 567, 569 (10th Cir. 2002) (citing Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 337 (10th Cir. 1995)). On the other hand, the court must examine the entire record-including any evidence that may detract from the ALJ's decision. Jarmillo v. Massanari, 21 F.Appx. 792, 794 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994)).

II. Analysis

Plaintiff was forty-nine years old on the date she alleges she became disabled. Plaintiff has a high school education with three years of college and vocational training in cosmetology. Her past relevant work was as a receptionist and claims clerk. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits based primarily on her allegations of chronic back pain; migraines; lumbar disc degeneration; osteoarthritis; fusing of vertebrae; herniated bulging discs; depression; lack of concentration; scoliosis; and gerd insomnia obesity myalgia myositis. (Doc. 11 at 249.) Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on December 11, 2012.

The ALJ considered plaintiff's claims and concluded that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: depression; mild cervical spondylosis with multilevel degenerative disc disease; mild to moderate lumbar spondylosis; and moderate levoscoliosis with multilevel degenerative disc disease. ( Id. at 18.) With respect to plaintiff's migraines, the ALJ found that impairment was not severe, ( id. ), a finding which plaintiff claims was erroneous. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. ( Id. at 18-19.)

The ALJ went on to assess plaintiff's RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work (lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except: She must have the ability to alternate between sitting and standing every 45 minutes, for a brief position change of 5 minute maximum, and then continue working at the work station. The claimant is limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out simple, routine repetitive tasks, consistent with unskilled work. She is limited to occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, and crouch. She can perform no more than occasional overhead reaching. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, and work hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights.

( Id. at 19-20.) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide a narrative discussion in assessing her RFC. The court now turns to plaintiff's two claims of error.

A. Plaintiff's Migraine Headaches

Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in finding her migraine headaches were not severe. An impairment, or combination of impairments, is severe only if it significantly limits a claimant's ability to do basic work-related activities like walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, handling, seeing, hearing, and speaking. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(c), 404.1521. While this step requires a "de minimis" showing of impairment, see Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1169 (10th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted), the claimant must show more than the mere presence of a condition or ailment, see Bowen, 482 U.S. at 153 (stating that step two is designed to identify "at an early stage" claimants with such slight impairments they would be unlikely to be found disabled even if age, education, and experience were considered). Presumptively, if the medical severity of a claimant's impairments is so slight that the impairments could not interfere with or have a serious impact on the claimant's ability to do basic work activities, irrespective of vocational factors, the impairments do not prevent the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988). Thus, at step two, the ALJ looks only at the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments and determines the impact the impairment would have on her ability to work. Hinkle v. Apfel, 132 F.3d 1349, 1352 (10th Cir. 1997).

Here, the ALJ found at step two that plaintiff's migraine headaches were not severe:

She also alleges chronic migraine headaches, not evaluated by a headache specialist and with no objective medical evidence to support the etiology of her headaches or maximize treatment. Therefore, there is no clear evidence that they result in more ...

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