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Wilkins-Scott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 31, 2017

DEBRA WILKINS-SCOTT, 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 supplemental security income payments. 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).

         II. History of case

         On June 12, 2014, administrative law judge (ALJ) Michael D. Shilling issued his decision (R. at 13-19). Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since August 23, 2012 (R. at 13). At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of August 23, 2012 (R. at 15). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had medically determinable impairments (R. at 15), but further determined that plaintiff does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments (R. at 15). In the alternative, at step four, the ALJ concluded that even if plaintiff was limited to light work due to a combination of her impairments, she could still perform past relevant work (R. at 18). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 19).

         III. Did the ALJ err in finding that plaintiff's arthralgia was not a medically determinable impairment?

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's finding that plaintiff's arthralgia was not a medically determinable impairment was erroneous (Doc. 11 at 7). In his decision, the ALJ stated that through February 2013, the claimant was noted to have only “arthralgia” and no medically determinable musculoskeletal or rheumatologic diagnosis was ever given. Therefore, the ALJ found that the claimant has no medically determinable impairment related to her complaints of joint pain (R. at 17).

         An impairment must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 416.908. Evidence to establish a medically determinable impairment must come from acceptable medical sources. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a), 416.913(a).

         Plaintiff's treating physician diagnosed plaintiff with arthralgia on numerous occasions (R. at 191-192, 194-195, 196-197, 198-199, 261-262, 263-264). As set forth above, the ALJ mentioned that plaintiff was noted to have arthralgia, [2] but that no medically determinable musculoskeletal or rheumatologic diagnosis was ever given; therefore the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff has no medically determinable impairment related to her complaints of joint pain. Defendant argues that arthralgia, or joint pain, is not an impairment, but a symptom that can be caused by numerous impairments (Doc. 12 at 4). However, the citation provided by the defendant in support of this argument does not state that arthralgia is not an impairment, but a symptom. This article on ...


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