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Hoffman v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 14, 2015

STANLEY HOFFMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

J. THOMAS MARTEN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Stanley Hoffman seeks review of a final decision by defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. Upon review, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence contained in the record. As such, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed for DIB on October 19, 2010, alleging disability beginning December 17, 2008. His claim was denied initially on March 24, 2011, and upon reconsideration on June 15, 2011. Plaintiff timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, which took place on July 19, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael R. Dayton. The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on January 16, 2013. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Also testifying was plaintiff's daughter, Jennifer Newst, and Vocational Expert ("VE") Bonnie Ward.

The ALJ issued his decision on February 1, 2013, finding that plaintiff suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including degenerative changes to the cervical and lumbar spines, status post multiple remote knee surgeries, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and borderline intellectual functioning. Despite these findings, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. He concluded that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work with the following additional restrictions and/or limitations: (1) stand and/or walk and sit for six hours during an eight-hour workday; (2) frequently balance and climb ramps and stairs; (3) occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; (4) occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (5) occasionally reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities; (6) no concentrated exposure to extreme cold and vibrations; (7) understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; (8) can attend and concentrate adequately to carry out simple tasks; (9) avoid workplace hazards; and (10) can adapt to normal changes in a workplace within the stated limits.

The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff was not under a disability during the relevant time period. This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 23, 2014, after the Appeals Council denied review. On August 27, 2014, plaintiff filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas seeking reversal and the immediate award of benefits or, in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for further consideration. Given plaintiff's exhaustion of all administrative remedies, his claim is now ripe for review before this court.

In his brief, plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to: (1) find plaintiff illiterate and therefore disabled, (2) accord proper weight to a non-treating consultative examiner, (3) perform an appropriate credibility analysis, and (4) pose a complete hypothetical to the VE.

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." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). "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." Barkley v. Astrue, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76220, at *3 (D. Kan. July 28, 2010) (citing Castellano v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1028 (10th Cir. 1994)). The court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.3d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)).

An individual is under a disability only if he or 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." Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). 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." Barkley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76220, at *3 (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-22 (2002)).

Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). 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. Barkley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76220, at *4.

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 impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084; see also Barkley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76220, at *4-5 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988)). 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." Barkley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76220, at *5; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545.

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 his or her past relevant work or whether he or she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively. Barkley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76220, at *5 (citing Williams, 844 F.2d at 751). The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of his or her past relevant work. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite his or her alleged impairments, the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Id.

III. Analysis

A. Failure to find plaintiff illiterate

Plaintiff first alleges that, pursuant to Grid Rule 202.09, based on his age, limitation to only unskilled work, and inability to read, he should have been deemed illiterate and therefore disabled. In support of his argument, plaintiff cites to his own testimony, as well as that of his daughter, that he had limited ...


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