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Walter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 21, 2017

JOAN L. WALTER, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Joan Walter seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Walter alleges that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred (1) in assessing her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), (2) by posing an inadequate hypothetical question to the vocational expert and relying on the flawed testimony, and (3) in finding that she was not entirely credible. Having reviewed the record, and as described below, the Court reverses the order of the Commissioner.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Joan Walter was born on August 8, 1958. On May 8, 2013, Walter applied for disability and disability insurance benefits alleging a disability beginning on October 8, 2008. She alleged that she was unable to work due to several disorders including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and osteoarthritis. Walter's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. She then asked for a hearing before an ALJ.

         ALJ Janice Barnes-Williams conducted an administrative hearing on September 8, 2014. Walter was represented by counsel, and Walter testified about her medical conditions. The ALJ also heard from a vocational expert.

         On November 24, 2014, the ALJ issued her written decision, finding that Walter had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ found that Walter suffered from status post cervical fusion with degenerative disc disease and radiculopathy, mild lumbar spondylosis with mild degenerative changes at the sciatic joint, and fibromyalgia. The ALJ determined that Walter's impairment or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         The ALJ determined that Walter had the RFC

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and SSR 83-10. She can lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She requires a sit-stand option every 30 minutes; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders, rope, or scaffolds; she can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she can frequently reach, but needs to avoid overhead reaching; and she needs to avoid exposure to extreme cold, wetness (as it relates to weather conditions), and excessive vibration.

         The ALJ then determined that Walter was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. However, considering Walter's age (advanced because she was 55 years old on the date last insured), education, work skills, and RFC, the ALJ determined that jobs existed in the national economy that Walter could still perform. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Walter had not been under a disability from October 8, 2008 (the alleged onset date), through June 30, 2014 (the date last insured).

         Given the unfavorable result, Walter requested reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Walter's request on January 29, 2016. Accordingly, the ALJ's November 2014 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Walter filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. She seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision. Because Walter has exhausted all administrative remedies available, this Court has jurisdiction to review the decision.

         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 of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”[2] 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.[3] “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.”[4] The Court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].”[5]

         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.”[6] 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.”[7]

         Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[8] 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.[9]

         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 severe impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments.[10] 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 his impairments.”[11]

         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 her past relevant work or whether she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively.[12] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of her past relevant work.[13] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite the claimant's alleged impairments, the claimant could perform other work in the national economy.[14]

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred (1) in assessing her RFC, (2) by posing an inadequate hypothetical question to the vocational expert and relying on the flawed testimony, and (3) in finding that she was not entirely credible. The Court will only address Plaintiff's first contention.

         “Residual functional capacity consists of those activities that a claimant can still perform on a regular and continuing basis despite his or her physical limitations.”[15] Under Social Security Ruling 96-8p, an RFC assessment “must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts . . . and nonmedical evidence.”[16] In addition, the ALJ must discuss the individual's ability to perform sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a “regular and continuing basis” and describe the maximum amount of work-related activity the individual can perform based on evidence in the case record.[17] An ALJ “must also explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved.”[18] However, “there is no requirement in the regulations for a direct correspondence between an RFC finding and a specific medical opinion on the functional capacity in question.”[19]

         In this case, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Cahill, stated that Plaintiff could sit and stand two hours in an eight-hour workday and that she could only occasionally perform fine manipulation, gross manipulation, and reaching. The ALJ afforded little weight to Dr. Cahill's opinion. Instead, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could stand and/or walk up to six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit up to six hours. With regard to Plaintiff's arm movements, the RFC provided that Plaintiff could lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. In ...

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