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Washington v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Kansas

August 29, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Emma Washington 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”). Washington alleges that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in formulating her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Concluding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Washington was born on February 17, 1964. She has a high school education with some special education assistance. Washington has a limited work history as a cashier and housekeeper, and suffers from both physical pain and mental health disorders. The ALJ identified several impairments, including depressive disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorder, a history of right ankle fracture, right shoulder bursitis, obesity, diabetes mellitus type II, hypertension, right leg neuropathy, and hernia. The ALJ found that none of these impairments met or equaled a listed impairment.

         Washington filed for supplemental security income (SSI) in February 2010. After exhausting her administrative remedies, Washington filed for judicial review, and her case was remanded for further administrative proceedings. In November 2013, while the first case was pending, Washington filed a new application for SSI, which was consolidated with the remanded case.

         An ALJ held an administrative hearing in June 2016 and requested medical interrogatories from an orthopedic specialist, Dr. Jeffrey Hansen. Hansen indicated that Washington's condition did not meet or equal a listed impairment, but that she was subject to the following limitations: lifting up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; occasionally carrying a maximum of 10 pounds; sitting for no more than six hours out of an eight-hour workday, for up to two hours at a time; standing for a total of three hours of an eight-hour workday, for up to 30 minutes at a time; and walking for up to an hour of an eight-hour workday, up to one hour at a time. Hansen also indicated that Washington should be restricted to a total of four hours of standing and walking, with only occasional overhead reaching.

         The ALJ adopted Hansen's recommendations, except for the restriction to only occasionally carry up to 10 pounds.[2] The ALJ did not explain why he omitted the carrying limitation.

         In October 2016, a vocational expert identified three jobs that a hypothetical individual with Washington's vocational profile and RFC assessment could perform: “photocopy machine operator (22, 674 jobs existing nationally), shipping and receiving weigher [sic] (30, 411 jobs existing nationally), and mail clerk (61, 431 jobs existing nationally).”[3] Washington's counsel asked the vocational expert about the impact of hypothetical carrying limitations on the identified jobs. The expert explained that these jobs mostly accounted for the limitations, although some of them may not.[4] Furthermore, Washington's counsel asked whether the jobs that the vocational expert identified required a person to carry 10 pounds occasionally, to which the expert responded: “Yes, based on the job duties a worker would have to lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally to perform those above-mentioned jobs.”[5]

         After considering the evidence outlined above, the ALJ issued a decision in 2017 finding Washington was not disabled under the Act. Washington requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied her request, and Washington 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 Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.[6] The Court must therefore determine whether the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard.[7]“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.”[8] The Court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].”[9]

         An individual is disabled under the Act 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.”[10] 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.”[11] The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[12] 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.[13]

         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 impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments.[14] 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.”[15]

         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 her past relevant work, and if not, then whether she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy.[16] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents the performance of her past relevant work.[17] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite her alleged impairments, the claimant can perform other work in the national economy.[18]

         The parties in this case do not dispute that the first four steps in the sequential evaluation are met. The Court will proceed to the fifth step, where the Commissioner bears the burden to show that despite Washington's impairments, she can perform other work in the national economy.

         III. Analysis

         Washington argues that the ALJ erred because he provided great weight to Hansen's opinion and incorporated all his recommendations into the RFC assessment, except the additional limitations of carrying more than 10 pounds and only occasionally carrying up to 10 pounds. She argues that this requires reversal because the limitations in carrying would eliminate the light exertional jobs identified by the vocational expert. She further argues that, even without this error, the ALJ's decision should not stand because the other limitations in the RFC assessment would significantly erode the light exertional job base. The Court concludes that any error the ALJ may have made is harmless because the vocational expert explicitly addressed the additional carrying limitations and the ALJ addressed the level of erosion in the light exertional job base.

         The federal “harmless error” statute instructs courts to review cases for errors of law without regard to errors that do not affect the parties' substantive rights.[19] The Supreme Court has explained that “the party that seeks to have a judgment set aside because of an erroneous ruling carries the burden of showing that prejudice resulted.”[20] If the ALJ's determination is otherwise supported by substantial evidence, a harmless error does not warrant remand.[21] Furthermore, courts should not reverse for error that, “based on a reading of the ALJ's decision as a whole, would lead to unwarranted remands needlessly prolonging administrative proceedings.”[22] The Tenth Circuit has held that ...

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