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Hegwer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

February 10, 2017

JON R. HEGWER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Sam A. Crow, U.S. District Senior Judge

         This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties.

         I. General legal standards

         The court's standard of review is set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The court should review the Commissioner's decision to determine only whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, and is satisfied by such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The determination of whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision is not simply a quantitative exercise, for evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it really constitutes mere conclusion. Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). Although the court is not to reweigh the evidence, the findings of the Commissioner will not be mechanically accepted. Nor will the findings be affirmed by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan, 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D. Kan. 1992). The court should examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision and, on that basis, determine if the substantiality of the evidence test has been met. Glenn, 21 F.3d at 984.

         The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant can establish that they have a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The claimant's physical or mental impairment or impairments must be of such severity that they are not only unable to perform their previous work but cannot, considering their age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the Commissioner will not review the claim further. At step one, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant can show that he or she is not working at a “substantial gainful activity.” At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he or she has a “severe impairment, ” which is defined as any “impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his or her previous work; unless the claimant shows that he or she cannot perform their previous work, they are determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives step four, the fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Barnhart v. Thomas, 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-380 (2003).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. Nielson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10thCir. 1993). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Nielson, 992 F.2d at 1120; Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). The Commissioner meets this burden if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Thompson, 987 F.2d at 1487.

         Before going from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both step four and step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e, f, g); 416.920(a)(4), 416.920(e, f, g).

         This case involves termination of benefits after plaintiff was found disabled. An eight-step sequential evaluation process is used in termination-of-benefit reviews in a case involving disability insurance benefits. If the Commissioner meets his burden of establishing that the claimant's medical condition has improved and that the improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work, the Commissioner must then demonstrate that the claimant is currently able to engage in substantial gainful activity. Hayden v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 986, 988 (10th Cir. 2004). The burden of proof is on the Commissioner in a termination-of-benefits review. Hayden, 374 F.3d at 991; Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 987 (10th Cir. 1994).

         The eight-step sequential evaluation process is as follows:

(1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? (If yes, and any applicable trial work period has been completed, the agency will find that disability has ended).
(2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment? (If yes, the claimant is still disabled.)
(3) If not, has there been medical improvement? If there has been medical improvement, as shown by a decrease in medical severity, see step 4. If there has been no decrease in medical severity, there has been no medical improvement (see step 5).
(4) If there has been medical improvement, the agency must determine whether it is related to the claimant's ability to work (whether there has been an increase in the residual functional capacity (RFC) based on the impairment that was present at the time of the most favorable medical determination). If medical improvement is not related to the claimant's ability to work, see step 5. If medical improvement is related to claimant's ability to work, see step 6.
(5) If no medical improvement was found at step 3, or that the medical improvement was found at step 4 not to be related to claimant's ability to work, the agency considers a number of exceptions; if none of them apply, claimant's disability will be found to continue.
(6) The agency will next determine whether all of the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe. If claimant has no severe impairments, claimant will no longer be considered disabled.
(7) If claimant's impairments are severe, the agency will assess the claimant's current ability to do substantial gainful activity. The agency will assess the claimant's RFC and consider whether the claimant can perform past work. If claimant can perform past work, claimant will no longer be considered disabled.
(8) If claimant cannot perform past work, the agency will consider, given claimant's RFC, whether claimant can perform ...

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