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Wallace v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 26, 2015

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


MONTI L. BELOT, District Judge.

This is an action reviewing a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff disability insurance benefits.

I. General Legal Standards

The court's standard of review is contained in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides in part that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive, ..." The court should review the Commissioner's decision to determine only whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, and is satisfied by such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The determination of 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 really constitutes mere conclusion. Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). Although the court is not to reweigh the evidence, the findings of the Commissioner will not be mechanically accepted. Nor will the findings be affirmed by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan, 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D.Kan. 1992). The court should examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision and, on that basis, determine if the substantiality of the evidence test has been met. Glenn, 21 F.3d at 984.

The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant can establish that he has a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The claimant's physical or mental impairment or impairments must be of such severity that his is not only unable to perform his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.[1] 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the Commissioner will not review the claim further. At step one, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant can show that he is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a "severe impairment, " which is defined as any "impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless the claimant shows that he cannot perform his previous work, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives step four, the fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003).

The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. Nielson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (1993). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Nielson, 992 F.2d at 1120; Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). The Commissioner meets this burden if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Thompson, 987 F.2d at 1487. Before going from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both step four and step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); 404.1520(f, g).

II. History of the Case

Following a hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ross Stubblefield issued a written decision denying plaintiff's application for disability benefits on January 25, 2013. Doc. 7-3 at 14-27. At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 5, 2009, his alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and anxiety disorder. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

The ALJ found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), with limitations including the following: lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and sitting for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. These findings conflicted to some extent with plaintiff's testimony and with the opinion of his primary care treating physician, Dr. Stephen Thies. The ALJ relied instead on medical opinions of another treating physician and on consulting physicians.

Plaintiff asserted that he has problems sitting for over an hour due to back pain and that he can stand for only 30 minutes and walk 15 minutes before needing to sit down. He testified he needs to lie in a reclined position for 2-3 hours per day to get relief. The ALJ found that plaintiff's subjective pain complaints and allegations of disability were inconsistent with the medical record. Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Thies, indicated in a medical source statement dated April 2, 2012 that plaintiff had limitations including: lifting or carrying 15 pounds occasionally, 5 pounds frequently; standing or walking 3 hours of an 8-hour day; sitting up to 2 hours in an 8-hour day; and having to lie down 2-3 times a day for 30 minutes to 2 hours. The ALJ afforded "little weight" to these opinions, however, concluding that the objective evidence did not support them.

At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff cannot perform any past relevant work. At step five, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including electrical assembler, mail clerk, and routing clerk. The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff is not disabled.

III. Analysis

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred by failing to properly analyze and consider the opinion of treating physician Dr. Thies and by improperly disregarding plaintiff's statements ...

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