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MacDonald v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 20, 2015

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


J. THOMAS MARTEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Karen J. MacDonald seeks review of a final decision by defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that the Commissioner erred in denying DIB because the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to properly determine her residual functional capacity ("RFC") and failed to establish that she is capable of performing jobs that exist in the national economy. As discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for DIB and supplemental SSI in August 2011. She alleged disability beginning February 27, 2011, caused by panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome ("IBS"), gastroesophageal reflux disorder ("GERD"), allergies, and fibromyalgia. The state agency and the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's applications initially and upon reconsideration. Pursuant to plaintiff's request, an ALJ held a hearing on November 19, 2013.

The ALJ issued his decision on April 25, 2014, finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ determined that plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, cubital tunnel syndrome, major depressive disorder, and anxiety. He then determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically exceeds the severity of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The ALJ determined that plaintiff can: sit for 6 out of 8 hours; stand and walk for 6 out of 8 hours in combination; lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; occasionally climb stairs or ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never perform repetitive grasping of objects with her hands; frequently finger bilaterally; and never be exposed to extreme cold, vibration, or hazards. The ALJ further determined that plaintiff should never be expected to understand, remember, or carry out detailed instruction; that her job duties must be simple, repetitive, and routine in nature; and that she should never be expected to exercise independent judgment in her job duties.

The ALJ determined that plaintiff is incapable of performing past work, but that she can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ relied on testimony from a Vocational Expert ("VE"), who noted that plaintiff could perform the job duties of a weight recorder, router, or folding machine operator as described in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). The ALJ thus concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

II. Legal Standard

This court reviews the ALJ's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to "determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is that which "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). "Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance." Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). The court's role is not to "reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's." Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1185 (10th Cir. 2008). The possibility that two inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence does not preclude a finding that the Commissioner's decision was based on substantial evidence. Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200.

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." 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 v. Astrue, 2010 WL 3001753, at *2 (D. Kan. July 28, 2010) (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-22 (2002)).

Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has prescribed a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether disability existed between the time of claimed onset and the date the claimant was last insured under the Act. Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the trier of fact finds at any point during the five steps that the claimant is disabled or not disabled, the analysis stops. Reyes v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 242, 243 (10th Cir. 1988). The first three steps 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 medically severe impairment or combination of impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those impairments meets or equals a listed impairment. Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (citing Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)). If the impairments do not meet or equal a designated listing in step three, the Commissioner then assesses the claimant's RFC based on all medical and other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC 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. "RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most. " SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996) (emphasis in original). The Commissioner then proceeds to step four, where the RFC assessment is used to determine whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four of proving disability that prevents performance of her past relevant work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084.

If a claimant meets the burdens of steps one through four, "the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant retains sufficient RFC to perform work in the national economy, given her age, education, and work experience." Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (brackets omitted).

III. Analysis

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because he (1) improperly weighed medical opinions, (2) improperly weighed the third-party statement of her son, James Wilson, (3) improperly determined plaintiff's credibility, and (4) failed to consider plaintiff's non-severe impairments. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ improperly relied on the VE ...

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