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Brice v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 20, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Mariann Brice seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Brice alleges that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in assessing her credibility and in discounting the opinion of a treating physician. Concluding that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner and remands for further consideration.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Brice was 25 years old on her alleged disability onset date, January 24, 2014. She has a high school education with some technical school. She previously worked as a customer service representative at a call center, a file clerk, a daycare teacher, an office assistant, and an assistant in a bridal shop. None of these positions lasted more than a few months, and she has not worked since June of 2010. Brice has also been raising three young children with her husband. On February 26, 2014, she applied for supplemental security income.

         Brice's relevant medical history is extensive and dates to April of 2011, when she underwent a spinal fusion surgery. She was admitted to the emergency room in June of 2011 with a migraine. Over the next few years she would continue to seek treatment for migraines and lumbar back pain. She tried several treatment options, including narcotic painkillers, Botox injections, and a spinal cord stimulator, but did not find a permanent solution for her migraines or back pain. On more than one occasion, the emergency room doctors refused to prescribe Brice painkillers due to concerns that she was exhibiting drug-seeking behavior.

         Brice attended a hearing before ALJ Michael Shilling on September 9, 2015. The ALJ issued his decision on October 15, 2015, finding Brice not disabled. In his decision, the ALJ assessed Brice's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), concluding that she was capable of a range of sedentary work.[1] He reached this conclusion after considering the medical evidence and discounting Brice's subjective complaints about her pain, because he found those complaints “not entirely credible.”[2] The ALJ explained that he questioned Brice's credibility because the objective medical evidence and her activities of daily living were not consistent with the degree of limitation she alleged, she had shown improvement with recent treatment, there were multiple instances of doctors suspecting Brice of drug-seeking behavior, and her low lifetime earnings suggested an unwillingness to work.

         The ALJ asked a vocational expert (“VE”) whether there were any jobs in the national economy that an individual in Brice's circumstances could work. The VE stated that an individual with Brice's education, work experience, and RFC could work as a document preparer, telephone quotation clerk, or surveillance system monitor. Because there were jobs that an individual in Brice's circumstances could work, the ALJ found that she was not disabled.

         Brice requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied her request, and Brice timely filed her complaint appealing that decision in this Court.

         II. Legal Standard

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is guided by the Act, which provides that the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.[3] 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.[4] “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.”[5] The Court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].”[6]

         An individual is under a disability only if she can “establish that she has a physical or mental impairment which prevents her 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.”[7] This impairment “must be severe enough that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience.”[8]

         Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[9] 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.[10]

         The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the ALJ 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.[11] 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 her impairments.”[12]

         After assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ moves on to steps four and five, which require the ALJ to determine whether the claimant can perform her past relevant work, and if not, then whether she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy.[13] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of her past relevant work.[14] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner ...

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