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Curless v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

May 31, 2018

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



         This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff disability benefits. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties and the court is prepared to rule. (Docs. 11, 12, 13.) The Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED for the reasons set forth herein.

         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 Commissioner's decision will be reviewed 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. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). 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 Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010). 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.” Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he or she has a severe impairment. 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. Id. at 750-51. 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 and determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The 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(f), (g). If a claimant shows that she cannot perform the previous work, 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, 379-80 (2003).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Id.; 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.

         II. History of Case

         Plaintiff filed applications for both Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging a disability beginning October 20, 2011, when he was 43 years old. Plaintiff later amended the onset date to January 9, 2014. (R. at 40.) On July 20, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Alison K. Brookins issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 16-29.)

         The ALJ determined at step two that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. (R. at 19.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets or exceeds the severity of a listed impairment. (R. at 19-21.) In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ found Plaintiff had only mild restrictions in activities of daily living and moderate difficulties in both social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace. (R. at 20.)

         At step four, the ALJ first determined Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: in that the claimant can understand and remember simple and some intermediate level ([SVP]3 and SVP4) instructions, and that he has the ability to focus and persist at simple routine and intermediate level tasks for an 8-hour day, but would have difficulty with more complex and detailed tasks, particularly those requiring sustained concentration for more than 2 hours without a break. He should not work with the public, and can have occasional co-worker contact.

(R. at 21.) In reaching these conclusions, the ALJ found Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the symptoms he alleged (including lack of motivation, feelings of being overwhelmed, tearfulness, and others) but his statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical and other evidence. (R. at 22.) The ALJ noted Plaintiff's history of treatment for depression and anxiety, but found the symptoms were responsive to and well-controlled by medication and therapy. (Id.)

         The ALJ also reviewed the various medical source and other opinions in the record, giving great weigh to the opinions of a state agency medical consultant (Edna P. Toubes-Klingler, M.D.) and state agency psychological consultant (Charles Fantz, Ph.D.). Dr. Toubes-Klingler opined that Plaintiff had no severe physical impairments. Dr. Fantz's opinions concerning Plaintiff's mental functional abilities were incorporated into the above RFC. The ALJ also considered medical source statements by Plaintiff's nurse practitioner (Patricia Harris, APRN) and psychiatrist (Rex Lear, MD), as well as opinions of Plaintiff's case management worker (Steve Passeri) and parole officer (Vicki LeFever), and an opinion provided by Plaintiff's sister (Deborah Johnson). As to each opinion, the ALJ stated the amount of weight she gave to it and the basis for doing so. The ALJ went on to find at step four that, given the above RFC and Plaintiff's circumstances, he was not able to perform his past relevant work. (R. at 27.)

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the ability to perform jobs that exist in substantial numbers in the national economy, including Kitchen Helper (DOT[1] 318.687-010), Hand Packager (DOT 920.587-018), and Laundry Laborer (DOT 361.687-018), all of which are unskilled, medium exertional occupations at the SVP2 level. (R. at 28.) The ALJ thus concluded Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Plaintiff's request for review of ...

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