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Mason v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

May 23, 2018

LANCE E. MASON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Lance E. Mason seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Mason alleges that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in formulating his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Concluding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Mason was 36 years old on his alleged disability onset date, August 6, 2012. He has a high school education and completed a year and a half of college. He previously worked as a janitor, a stock clerk, a roofer helper, a highway maintenance worker, a lumper, and a hostler. At the time of his hearing before the ALJ, Mason had been working part time for six months taking trucks from a warehouse to refuel them. This work did not rise to the level of “substantial gainful activity, ” which would have mandated a finding that Mason was not disabled.

         Mason's relevant medical history dates to July of 2004, when he was diagnosed with alcohol dependence, cannabis abuse, and personality disorder with antisocial traits following his second DUI arrest. With treatment, his mental health improved significantly. In December of 2012, the middle finger of his left hand-his dominant hand-was amputated after he injured it in a saw accident.

         Mason applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on June 30, 2014. On February 9, 2016, he attended a hearing before ALJ Rhonda Greenberg. At the hearing, the ALJ and Mason's counsel posed hypotheticals to a vocational expert (“VE”), asking him if an individual with Mason's age, education, and work experience could find work despite a proposed list of physical and mental impairments.

         The ALJ issued a decision on May 18, 2016, finding Mason not disabled. In her decision, the ALJ assessed Mason's RFC, concluding that he can perform light work, [1] except that he “can only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; occasionally fingering and feeling with the left dominant hand; can perform simple, unskilled, repetitive work; cannot perform teamwork or work in tandem with coworkers; no contact with the general public.”[2] After finding that Mason could not perform any of his past work, the ALJ found that there were jobs in the national economy that Mason could perform, including cleaner, racker, and collator. Accordingly, she found that he was not disabled.

         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 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.”[7] 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.”[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 [his] impairments.”[12]

         After assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ continues to steps four and five, which require the ALJ to determine whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work, and if not, then whether he 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 his past relevant work.[14] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite his alleged impairments, the claimant can perform other work in the national economy.[15]

         III. ...

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