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Shields v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 28, 2015

DEBRA SHIELDS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

J. THOMAS MARTEN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Debra Shields seeks review of a final decision by defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. Upon review, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence contained in the record and is therefore affirmed.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed for DIB on October 14, 2011, alleging disability beginning August 10, 2011. Her claim was denied initially on March 1, 2012, and upon reconsideration on September 6, 2012. Plaintiff timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, which took place on July 15, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Susan Conyers. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Also testifying was Vocational Expert ("VE") Alissa Smith.

The ALJ issued her decision on September 18, 2013, finding that plaintiff suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including degenerative cervical joint disease status/post cervical spine fusion surgery, mild left shoulder degenerative joint disease, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), obesity, fibromyalgia, reactive depression (grief), and anxiety. 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. She concluded that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work with the following additional restrictions and/or limitations: (1) occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (3) no reaching overhead with the bilateral upper extremities; (4) avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, vibration, humidity, fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation; (5) frequently use the right and left hand for fine and gross manipulation; (6) perform simple and intermediate tasks involving no interaction with the general public and no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors; and (7) a sit/stand option that allows her to change positions every 30 to 60 minutes.

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 November 19, 2014, after the Appeals Council denied review. On January 19, 2015, 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 and an award of attorney's fees. Given plaintiff's exhaustion of all administrative remedies, her claim is now ripe for review before this court.

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.

In her brief, plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to: (1) take into account and specifically discuss in her written narrative a Work Activities Questionnaire completed by plaintiff's former ...


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