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Crowder v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 13, 2018

HENRY F. CROWDER, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is 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.

         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 October 22, 2015, administrative law judge (ALJ) Timothy G. Stueve issued his decision (R. at 20-31). Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled since September 16, 2013 (R. at 20). Plaintiff is insured for disability insurance benefits through December 31, 2018 (R. at 22). At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (R. at 22). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff has severe impairments (R. at 22). At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment (R. at 23). After determining plaintiff's RFC (R. at 24-25), the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work (R. at 29). At step five, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy (R. at 30). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 30-31).

         III. Did the ALJ err in his evaluation of plaintiff's obesity?

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's severe impairments included obesity (R. at 22). This was the only specific mention of obesity in the ALJ decision. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider plaintiff's obesity in accordance with SSR 02-1p.

         SSR 02-1p is a social security ruling governing the evaluation of obesity. It states that, when assessing RFC, obesity may cause limitations of various functions, including exertional, postural and social functions. Therefore, an assessment should also be made of the effect obesity has upon the claimant's ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical activity within the work environment. Obesity may also affect the claimant's ability to sustain a function over time. In cases involving obesity, fatigue may affect the individual's physical and mental ability to sustain work activity. 2002 WL 32255132 at *7. The discussion in the SSR on obesity and RFC concludes by stating that: “As with any other impairment, we will explain how we reached our conclusions on whether obesity caused any physical or mental limitations.” 2002 WL 32255132 at *8.

         Although the ALJ did not specifically mention plaintiff's obesity after making his step two findings, the ALJ, when making his RFC findings, stated that he considered all of plaintiff's symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence (R. at 25). Plaintiff relies on the opinions of plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Knopp, regarding his limitations. However, the reports from Dr. Knopp which plaintiff relies on to show that he is disabled and has severe limitations, listed numerous impairments, but made no mention of plaintiff's obesity (R. at 500-501, 872-875). The ALJ, in making his RFC findings, gave great weight to the opinions of the state agency assessments by Dr. Coleman and Dr. Toubes-Klingler (R. at 28). Dr. Coleman mentioned plaintiff's height (69”) and weight (244 lb.) (R. at 88), or a body mass index of 36. This reflects Level II obesity. SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 32255132 at *3.[1] Dr. Toubes-Klingler listed plaintiff's BMI as 35; both indicated it was an exertional limitation upon which their limitations were based (R. at 88, 108). Therefore, their findings expressly took into consideration plaintiff' obesity.

         Plaintiff has failed to point to any evidence in the record indicating that plaintiff's obesity resulted in limitations not included in the ALJ's RFC findings. See Arles v. Astrue, 438 Fed.Appx. 735, 740 (10th Cir. Sept. 28, 2011); Warner v. Astrue, 338 Fed.Appx. 748, 751 (10th Cir. July 16, 2009). On the facts ...

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