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Cox v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 25, 2018

KRYSTAL L. COX, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 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) pursuant to sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423 (hereinafter the Act). Finding that the ALJ inadequately explained and evaluated Dr. Kresser's and Dr. Sheehan's opinions that Plaintiff could work in a low stress environment, the court ORDERS that the final decision shall be REVERSED and that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) REMANDING the case for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) failed to perform a function-by-function assessment of her capabilities as required by Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p, that both the physical and mental limitations assessed by the ALJ are not supported by substantial record evidence, and that the ALJ erred in relying on the vocational expert's testimony at step five of the sequential evaluation process. She seeks remand “with directions to the Commissioner to grant her claims for disability insurance benefits.” (Pl. Br. 32).

         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 she has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of her 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 residual functional capacity (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, considering the RFC assessed, claimant can perform her 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).

         Although Plaintiff seeks remand for an immediate award of benefits, she provided no legal authority for that argument and did not develop it in her Brief. Wall, 561 F.3d at 1066 (issue presented without developed argumentation is waived). Plaintiff has waived consideration of this issue by failing to develop any argument regarding it. Franklin Sav. Corp. v. U.S., 180 F.3d 1124, 1128 n.6 (10th Cir. 1999) (arguments presented superficially are waived) (citing Sports Racing Servs., Inc. v. Sports Car Club of America, Inc. 131 F.3d 874, 880 (10th Cir. 1997) (dismissing claims never developed, with virtually no argument presented)). The court understands that there are (rare) circumstances in which it is appropriate to remand for an immediate award of benefits, but it is up to Plaintiff to cite the authority for such a result and to explain why this case meets the criteria justifying that result. She has not done so.

         The court addresses the remaining alleged errors in the order addressed in Plaintiff's Brief, but because it finds that the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiff's mental impairments and it may not provide advisory opinions, it will not discuss her arguments regarding physical impairments or step five errors. She may make arguments regarding these alleged errors on remand if she desires.

         II. Function-by-Function Assessment

         As Plaintiff suggests, 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 her past relevant work as she 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 regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work as it is generally performed in the national economy or at step five regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform other work in the national economy. Id. at 145-46 (also see examples 1-3, p. 146).

         The Commissioner argues that the Tenth Circuit has already answered this question, and has held that an ALJ is not “required to separately discuss and make findings regarding her abilities to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, push, or pull.” (Comm'r Br. 6) (quoting Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 956-57 (10th Cir. 2014)). She argues that the ALJ appropriately limited Plaintiff to the functions required by sedentary work as defined in the regulations and expressed further functional limitations such as postural, environmental, and mental limitations as exceptions from the general limitations contained in the regulatory definition. Id. at 6-7.

         In her Reply Brief, Plaintiff argues that it is impossible to identify from the ALJ's decision how much sitting, standing, or walking Plaintiff can perform. (Reply 2). She argues based on Hodgson v. Colvin, No. 14-1106, 2014 WL 5511077, *4 (D. Kan. Oct. 31, 2014) that Herndon does not apply in a situation such as this where the ALJ ...

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