United States District Court, D. Kansas
DESIREE A. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
J. THOMAS MARTEN, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Desiree A. Williams seeks review of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Upon review, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision was not supported by substantial evidence contained in the record. As such, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and remanded for further consideration consistent with this Memorandum and Order.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Plaintiff filed for SSI on January 31, 2011, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2005. Her claim was denied initially on September 6, 2011, and upon reconsideration on January 30, 2012. Plaintiff timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, which took place on October 30, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael D. Mance. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Also testifying was plaintiff's mother, Valerie Walker, and Vocational Expert ("VE") Alissa Smith.
The ALJ issued his decision on December 7, 2012, finding that plaintiff suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including fibromyalgia, obesity, chronic fatigue, anxiety, social phobia, depression in remission, and attention deficit disorder ("ADD"). 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 sedentary work with the following additional restrictions and/or limitations: (1) occasionally lift ten pounds; (2) stand and walk for two hours during an eight-hour day; (3) if necessary, alternate between sitting and standing every thirty minutes; (4) occasionally climb ramps and stairs; (5) never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (6) occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (7) avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, excessive vibrations, hazardous machinery, and unprotected heights; (8) only perform unskilled work that requires no more than occasional contact with coworkers and the public; and (9) only perform low and medium production-rate jobs, avoid high production rate jobs.
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 February 11, 2014, after the Appeals Council denied review. On April 16, 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, her claim is now ripe for review before this court.
In her brief, plaintiff alleges multiple assignments of error relating to the ALJ's assessment of her residual functional capacity. More specifically, plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to: (1) properly assess and assign weight to the opinions of plaintiff's treating physicians; and (2) properly assess plaintiff's credibility. As a result of these errors, plaintiff also alleges the VE's findings are unreliable.
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 ...