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 and supplemental security income payments. 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
6, 2009, ALJ Edmund Werre issued a decision denying plaintiff
benefits (R. at 11-18). Plaintiff sought judicial review, and
on July 8, 2011, District Court Judge Richard D. Rogers
reversed the decision of the Commissioner, and remanded the
case for further hearing (R. at 465-481; Case No.
January 16, 2013, administrative law judge (ALJ) James Harty
issued a 2nd decision, denying plaintiff benefits
(R. at 388-397). Plaintiff again sought judicial review, and
on September 2, 2014, this court reversed the decision of the
Commissioner, and remanded the case for further hearing (R.
at 756-766; Case No. 13-1217-SAC).
Harty issued a 3rd decision on May 14, 2015 (R. at
672-683). Plaintiff alleges that he had been disabled since
February 5, 2005 (R. at 672). Plaintiff is insured for
disability insurance benefits through June 30, 2009 (R. at
674). At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not
engage in substantial gainful activity since the alleged
onset date (R. at 674). At step two, the ALJ found that
plaintiff had the severe impairment of degenerative disc
disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion surgery. The
ALJ further found that since October 1, 2011, he has the
additional impairment of obesity (R. at 674). At step three,
the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments do not
meet or equal a listed impairment (R. at 674-675). After
determining plaintiff's RFC (R. at 675), the ALJ
determined at step four that plaintiff is unable to perform
past relevant work (R. at 681). At step five, the ALJ found
that plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy (R. at 682-683). Therefore,
the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at
Did the ALJ err in the relative weight accorded to the
various medical opinions?
opinions of physicians, psychologists, or psychiatrists who
have seen a claimant over a period of time for purposes of
treatment are given more weight than the views of consulting
physicians or those who only review the medical records and
never examine the claimant. The opinion of an examining
physician is generally entitled to less weight than that of a
treating physician, and the opinion of an agency physician
who has never seen the claimant is entitled to the least
weight of all. Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078,
1084 (10th Cir. 2004). When a treating source
opinion is inconsistent with the other medical evidence, the
ALJ's task is to examine the other medical source's
reports to see if they outweigh the treating source's
reports, not the other way around. Treating source opinions
are given particular weight because of their unique
perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained
from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of
individual examinations, such as consultative examinations.
If an ALJ intends to rely on a nontreating physician or
examiner's opinion, he must ...