United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
CROW, U.S. DISTRICT SENIOR JUDGE
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.
General legal standards
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
History of case
December 15, 2014, administrative law judge (ALJ) Ross
Stubblefield issued his decision (R. at 12-23). Plaintiff
alleges that she has been disabled since August 26, 2011 (R.
at 12). Plaintiff is insured for disability insurance
benefits through December 31, 2014 (R. at 14). At step one,
the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date (R. at 14). At
step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments
(R. at 15). At step three, the ALJ determined that
plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed
impairment (R. at 15). After determining plaintiff's RFC
(R. at 17), the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff is
unable to perform any past relevant work (R. at 22). At step
five, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform other jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (R.
at 22-23). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was
not disabled (R. at 23).
Are the ALJ's RFC findings supported by substantial
to SSR 96-8p, the RFC assessment “must include a
narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports
each conclusion, citing specific medical facts...and
nonmedical evidence.” The ALJ must explain how any
material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in
the case record were considered and resolved. The RFC
assessment must always consider and address medical source
opinions. If the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion
from a medical source, the ALJ must explain why the opinion
was not adopted. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *7. SSR rulings
are binding on an ALJ. 20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1);
Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 n.9, 110 S.Ct.
885, 891 n.9, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990); Nielson v.
Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993).
reaching his RFC determination, an ALJ is permitted, and
indeed required, to rely on all of the record evidence,
including but not limited to medical opinions in the file.
Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1071
(10th Cir. 2013). When the ALJ fails to provide a
narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports
each conclusion, citing to specific medical facts and
nonmedical evidence, the court will conclude that his RFC
conclusions are not supported by substantial evidence.
See Southard v. Barnhart, 72 Fed.Appx. 781, 784-785
(10th Cir. July 28, 2003). The ALJ's decision must be
sufficiently articulated so that it is capable of meaningful
review; the ALJ is charged with carefully considering all of
the relevant evidence and linking his findings to specific
evidence. Spicer v. Barnhart, 64 Fed.Appx. 173,
177-178 (10th Cir. May 5, 2003). It is insufficient for the
ALJ to only generally discuss the evidence, but fail to
relate that evidence to his conclusions. Cruse v. U.S.
Dept. of Health & Human Services, 49 F.3d 614, 618
(10th Cir. 1995). When the ALJ has failed to comply with SSR
96-8p because he has not linked his RFC determination with
specific evidence in the record, the court cannot adequately
assess whether relevant evidence supports the ALJ's RFC
determination. Such bare conclusions are beyond meaningful
judicial review. Brown v. Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration, 245 F.Supp.2d 1175, 1187 (D.
ALJ, in his RFC findings, limited plaintiff to sedentary work
as defined by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff
can use either hand to frequently handle and finger. She can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs, occasionally balance,
stoop, crouch and crawl but can never climb ladders and
scaffolds. Plaintiff can never perform work at unprotected
heights, never perform work involving moving mechanical
parts, cannot have concentrated exposure to dust, odors,
fumes and pulmonary irritants, and can never work in work
areas with extreme heat, cold ...