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Brian L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 29, 2019

BRIAN L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          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 no error in the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING the Commissioner's final decision.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff argues that the “ALJ Improperly Evaluated [Plaintiff's] Credibility” (Pl. Br. 10) (bolding omitted); relied on a faulty residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment, id. at 13-16; and failed properly to weigh the medical opinion evidence. Id. at 16-17.

         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 she 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 he has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of his 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 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 process--determining at step four whether, considering the RFC assessed, claimant can perform his past relevant work; and at step five whether, when also considering the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience, he 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).

         The court considers the issues in order as they would present when applying the sequential evaluation process. Therefore, despite the order the issues appear in Plaintiff's Brief, the court considers the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinion evidence before it considers the allegedly faulty RFC assessment.

         II. The ALJ's Consideration of Plaintiff's Allegations of Symptoms

         Plaintiff argues that in evaluating his allegations of symptoms the ALJ did not acknowledge his consistent work history or “his continued attempts to work after he became disabled” (Pl. Br. 11) and failed adequately to recognize Dr. Clark's observations that his symptoms were consistent with Machado-Joseph disease. Id. at 12. He argues that “[w]hen assessing a claimant's credibility, the focus of the ALJ should not be whether the claimant is a truthful person; instead, the focus is whether the evidence of record establishes a medical impairment ‘that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's symptoms.'” Id. (quoting Soc. Sec. Ruling (SSR) 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 at *11 (S.S.A. Oct. 25, 2017)). He argues that “the ALJ failed to provide any specific reasons supported by the evidence of record to support” his evaluation of Plaintiff's allegations of symptoms, and his rationale “was no more than a single, conclusory, boilerplate statement: ‘the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects these symptoms [sic] are not supported by medical evidence nor any probative evidence, and are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above residual functional capacity assessment.'” Id. at 12-13 (purportedly quoting R. 17). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ reasonably discounted Plaintiff's allegations of symptoms because they were not supported by objective medical evidence, were inconsistent with his reported activities, and there was a gap in treatment history. (Comm'r Br. 5-6). She argues that contrary to Plaintiff's argument the ALJ discussed his reasons for discounting Plaintiff's allegations. Id. at 6-8. In his Reply Brief Plaintiff argues that “the ALJ has misconstrued the evidence and failed to consider the entire record in reaching his credibility findings.” (Reply 2).

         A. Standard for Evaluating Allegations of Symptoms

         The Tenth Circuit has explained the analysis for considering subjective testimony regarding symptoms. Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1488 (10th Cir. 1993) (dealing specifically with pain).

A claimant's subjective allegation of pain is not sufficient in itself to establish disability. Before the ALJ need even consider any subjective evidence of pain, the claimant must first prove by objective medical evidence the existence of a pain-producing impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged disabling pain. This court has stated: The framework for the proper analysis of Claimant's evidence of pain is set out in Luna v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 161 (10th Cir. 1987). We must consider (1) whether Claimant established a pain-producing impairment by objective medical evidence; (2) if so, whether there is a “loose nexus” between the proven impairment and the Claimant's subjective allegations of pain; and (3) if so, whether, considering all the evidence, both objective and subjective, Claimant's pain is in fact disabling.

Thompson, 987 F.2d at 1488(citations and quotation omitted).

         In evaluating a claimant's allegations of symptoms, the court has recognized a non-exhaustive list of factors which should be considered. Luna, 834 F.2d at 165-66; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3). These factors include:

the levels of medication and their effectiveness, the extensiveness of the attempts (medical or nonmedical) to obtain relief, the frequency of medical contacts, the nature of daily activities, subjective measures of credibility that are peculiarly within the judgment of the ALJ, the motivation of and relationship between the claimant and other witnesses, ...

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