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Webb v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

February 7, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          John W. Lungstrum, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff seeks review of a decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter Commissioner) denying Disability Insurance benefits (DIB) under sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423 (hereinafter the Act). Finding no error in the Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) decision, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING the Commissioner’s final decision.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2012. (R. 13, 202). Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) failed to assess residual functional capacity (RFC) on a functional basis, erred in weighing the third-party opinion of his wife and the credibility of his allegations of symptoms resulting from his impairments, and failed to sustain the Commissioner’s burden at step five of the sequential evaluation process because the ALJ accepted vocational expert (VE) testimony in conflict with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).

         The court’s review is guided by the Act. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Section 405(g) of the Act provides that in judicial review “[t]he findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court must determine whether the ALJ’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether he applied the correct legal standard. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); accord, White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 905 (10th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but it is less than a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also, Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052; Gossett v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 802, 804 (10th Cir. 1988).

         The court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)); accord, Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005); see also, Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1994) (The court “may not reweigh the evidence in the record, nor try the issues de novo, nor substitute [the Court’s] judgment for the [Commissioner’s], even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner’s] decision.”) (quoting Harrell v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 471, 475 (5th Cir. 1988)). Nonetheless, the determination 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 constitutes mere conclusion. Gossett, 862 F.2d at 804-05; Ray v. Bowen, 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989).

         The Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential process to evaluate a claim for disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010) (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988)). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084). In the first three steps, the Commissioner determines whether claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset, whether he has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of his impairment(s) meets or equals the severity of any impairment in the Listing of Impairments (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51. After evaluating step three, the Commissioner assesses claimant’s RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). This assessment is used at both step four and step five of the sequential evaluation process. Id.

         The Commissioner next evaluates steps four and five of the sequential process--determining at step four whether, in light of the RFC assessed, claimant can perform his past relevant work; and at step five whether, when also considering the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience, claimant is able to perform other work in the economy. Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084). In steps one through four the burden is on Plaintiff to prove a disability that prevents performance of past relevant work. Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006); accord, Dikeman v. Halter, 245 F.3d 1182, 1184 (10th Cir. 2001); Williams, 844 F.2d at 751 n.2. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs in the economy which are within the RFC assessed. Id.; Haddock v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 1084, 1088 (10th Cir. 1999).

         The court considers Plaintiff’s arguments in the order presented in his Brief and finds no error in the Commissioner’s final decision.

         II. Function-By-Function RFC Assessment

         Plaintiff’s first claim is that the ALJ erred because he first “expressed the RFC in terms of exertional levels of work” rather than first performing “the requisite function-by-function assessment” required by Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. (Pl. Br. 11). He claims the “ALJ failed to perform the function-by-function assessment and address the specific work-related abilities of pushing and pulling,” and “failed to discuss Plaintiff’s ability to perform sustained work activities on a regular and containing basis.” (Pl. Br. 12). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ did assess Plaintiff’s abilities and limitations on a function-by-function basis and assessed limitations consistent with the medical opinion of Dr. Kaur, a state agency physician, and with the other medical evidence of record. (Comm’r Br. 6-7).

         A. Standard for Assessing RFC

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations regarding assessment of RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545-1546. In assessing RFC, the Commissioner is to consider a claimant’s abilities to meet the demands of work despite his impairment(s). Id. at § 404.1545. The assessment is to be based upon all relevant medical and other evidence in the record and is to include consideration of the limitations caused by all of the claimant’s impairments, including impairments which are not “severe” as defined in the regulations. Id. at § 404.1545(a & e). The assessment is to consider physical abilities such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, reaching, handling, stooping, and crouching; mental abilities such as understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions; responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and work pressures; other abilities such as hearing and seeing; and the ability to tolerate various work environments. Id. § 404.1545(b,c,d); see also §§ 404.1521, 416.921 (listing examples of basic work activities which may be affected by impairments). At the hearing level, it is the ALJ’s responsibility to assess RFC. Id. § 404.1546(c).

         The Commissioner issued SSR 96-8p “[t]o state the Social Security Administration’s policies and policy interpretations regarding the assessment of residual functional capacity (RFC) in initial claims for disability benefits.” West’s Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 143 (Supp. 2017). The ruling explains that assessment of RFC involves a function-by-function consideration of each work-related ability before expressing the RFC in terms of the exertional categories of “sedentary,” “light,” and so forth. Id. at 143, 145-46. Failure to perform a function-by-function assessment may result in an improper finding at step four regarding plaintiff’s ability to perform his past relevant work as he actually performed it. Id. Moreover, because certain occupations do not require the capacity to meet all the strength demands of the full range of work in a particular exertional category, a failure to do a function-by-function assessment may result in improper findings at step four ...

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