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Harris v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 24, 2015

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


J. THOMAS MARTEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff William Harris, III has applied for Social Security disability and supplemental security income benefits as well as child's insurance benefits, based upon scoliosis and various psychological impairments. His application was denied by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on May 20, 2013, and the Appeals Council denied review on June 19, 2014. Harris advances two allegations of error in the present appeal. First, he contends that the ALJ erred in failing to reasonably articulate the evidence in support of the assessment of Residual Functional Capacity (RFC). Second, Harris argues that the ALJ erred in his assessment of the evidence underpinning the RFC assessment, and that the assessment is not supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiff-claimant Harris was born on March 5, 1985 and alleges that he became disabled beginning March 5, 2003. Because he was under that 22 years of age at the time of the alleged onset date, Harris is eligible for child's insurance benefits under section 202(d) of the Social Security Act. He further meets the standards for insured status up to December 31, 2011.

As the ALJ determined, Harris suffers from severe impairments in the form of substance addiction disorder, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and borderline intellectual functioning. The detailed facts of the case, which are incorporated herein, are set forth independently in the ALJ's opinion (Tr. 9-3, Tr. 15-24).

While the ALJ agreed that Harris suffers from various psychological impairments, he further found that none of the impairments were disabling per se. He specifically found that Harris does have scoliosis, but that he has never needed treatment for the condition. The condition only slightly reduces his range of motion. Further, x-rays of Harris's spine presented essentially normal results. Accordingly, the scoliosis is not a severe impairment. (Tr. 16). Harris's psychological impairments do not rise to the level of any listed impairment. (Tr. 17).

The ALJ found that Harris retained the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, except that he was limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks. He is able to maintain attention and concentration for at least two hours at a time, adapt to changes in at a basic level, and accept supervision on a basic level. While he can work alongside others, he should not perform work requiring close cooperation and interaction with them. He should not interact with the general public. (Tr. 18). In light of these abilities, Harris can work in jobs such as house keeper, cook helper, or linen room attendant. (Tr. 22-23).

The Commissioner determines whether an applicant is disabled pursuant to a five-step sequential evaluation process (SEP) pursuant to 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520 and 416.920. The applicant has the initial burden of proof in the first three steps: she must show that she is engaged in substantial gainful activity, that she has a medically-determinable, severe ailment, and whether that impairment matches one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt P., app. 1. See Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). If a claimant shows that she cannot return to her former work, the Commissioner has the burden of showing that she can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(f). See Channel v. Heckler, 747 F.2d 577, 579 (10th Cir. 1984).

The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. 405(g) of the Social Security Act. Under the statute, the Commissioner's decision will be upheld so long as it applies the "correct legal standard, " and is supported by "substantial evidence" of the record as a whole. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994).

Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is satisfied by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The question of whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision is not a mere quantitative exercise; evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence, or in reality is a mere conclusion. Ray, 865 F.2d at 224. The court must scrutinize the whole record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan, 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D. Kan. 1992). The court will not reweigh the evidence. "The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence." Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004). Thus the court will not "displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo. " Id . See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (applying Zoltanski in reviewing ALJ's social security decision).

This deferential review is limited to factual determinations; it does not apply to the Commisioner's conclusions of law. Applying an incorrect legal standard, or providing the court with an insufficient basis to determine that correct legal principles were applied, is grounds for reversal. Frey v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 512 (10th Cir. 1987).

The court finds that the ALJ's decision is based upon substantial evidence which is reasonably articulated in his opinion. The ALJ's opinion carefully references Harris's diagnostic and treatment history, with extensive references to the medical record. (Tr. 19-20), Based upon that detailed examination of the record, including an examination of Harris's history of prescribed medications, the ALJ determined that he was "generally maintained... on the same medical regimen, " and that the evidence indicated this regimen generally provided "adequate symptom relief." (Tr. 19). With respect to his treatment history, the ALJ noted that Harris repeatedly failed to follow through with prescribed treatment. The ALJ concluded that Harris was not as limited as he currently states, given the evidence that "appointments for treatment were made available to him" but "[h]e just failed to take advantage of them." ( Id. ). Conversely, the evidence showed that when Harris followed his prescribed treatment, he experienced "[on]ly moderate limitations on his mental functioning." (Tr. 20).

Harris did have episodes of drug overdoses, but these appear to have occurred at most once a year. In May of 2010, he presented to the emergency room and tested positive for marijuana and barbituates, in what he himself stated was an "attempt[] to get attention." (Tr. 20). He was discharged the same day in stable condition. One year later, in May 2011, he was hospitalized for four days, and was released with the indication that he was stable and feeling well. And in July, 2012, he arrived at the emergency room stating that he was hallucinating after overdosing on his ADHD medication. His medication was changed and he was released the following day. The ALJ accurately concluded that Harris required medical treatment for drug overdoses "on only a few occasions" and in each instance was "easily stabilized." (Tr. 20).

The ALJ addressed the consultative psychological examinations conducted by Robert Barnett (Ph.D.) on September 13 and December 14, 2011, and discussed the results of both. In the first examination, Dr. Barnett noted that Harris first responded to his questions inappropriately, to the point that his behaviour "initially was grossly inappropriate with me during the interview." (Tr. 609). Dr. Barnett was forced to confront Harris "that if he did not respond directly to my questions, we would terminate the interview." Harris then "became more appropriate, " and "[h]e eventually made a reasonable effort to respond to my questions." (Tr. 607).

Harris reported to Dr. Barnett that he lives with his girlfriend and their child. He washes the dishes and takes out the trash. He has a drivers license and drives on a limited basis. Dr. Barnett noted that Harris "[i]ntellectually... gives the impression of functioning in the low to borderline range." (Tr. 608). He also reported that Harris's "thought processes during the interview were mildly illogical but coherent" and without "any disturbance of thought content." ( Id. ) Harris could name the current and previous president, perform serial sevens, and recite four digits backwards and forwards. Dr. Barnett concluded that Harris "appears intellectually limited in a ...

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