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Whitney v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 26, 2017

BRUCE B. WHITNEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Bruce Whitney seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred (1) by improperly evaluating his claim at step two, (2) by improperly evaluating his claim at step three, (3) in assessing Plaintiff's residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) because the evidence does not support the ALJ's finding, and (4) by improperly evaluating his claim at step 4. Having reviewed the record, and as described below, the Court affirms the order of the Commissioner.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Bruce Whitney was born on September 28, 1951. On June 6, 2013, Plaintiff protectively applied for disability insurance benefits. He alleged that his disability began on March 5, 2013. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. He then asked for a hearing before an ALJ.

         ALJ Timothy Stueve conducted an administrative hearing on September 29, 2014. Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and he testified about his medical conditions. The ALJ also heard from a vocational expert (“VE”).

         On November 25, 2014, the ALJ issued his written decision, finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from degenerative disc disease and heart disease. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff'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 stated that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), in that, he can occasionally lift 20 pounds, frequently lift or carry 10 pounds, walk or stand for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant also has the following nonexertional limitations that further limit his ability to perform light work: can frequently climb ramps and stairs, but only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can only occasionally tolerate exposure to extreme cold and extreme heat; and should avoid all exposure to vibration in the workplace.

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a surgical physician assistant. In the alternative, the ALJ determined that based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff could also perform work in other jobs existing in the national economy. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from March 5, 2013 through the date of his decision.

         Given the unfavorable result, Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request on February 10, 2016. Accordingly, the ALJ's November 2014 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. He seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and the grant of benefits. In the alternative, he seeks remand. Because Plaintiff 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.”[1] 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.[2] “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.”[3] The Court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].”[4]

         An individual is under a disability only if he can “establish that [he] has a physical or mental impairment which prevents [him] 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.”[5] This impairment “must be severe enough that [he] is unable to perform [his] past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering [his] age, education, and work experience.”[6]

         Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[7] 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.[8]

         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.[9] If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's RFC, which is the claimant's ability “to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments.”[10]

         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 his past relevant work or whether he can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively.[11] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of his past relevant work.[12] 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.[13]

         III. ...

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