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L.S. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Kansas

October 24, 2019

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



         Plaintiff filed this action for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for social security disability benefits. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is ripe for decision. (Docs. 9, 12, 13.) The Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED for the reasons set forth herein.

         I. Standard of Review

         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 as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate 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 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 agency 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). At step four, the agency must determine whether the claimant can perform previous work. 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, 379-380 (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. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability beginning February 20, 2013, when she was 36 years of age. (Tr. at 12, 183.) Prior to that time, Plaintiff held jobs as a supervisor and unit clerk. (Tr. at 188.) Plaintiff's claims were administratively denied both initially and upon reconsideration, prompting her to request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing in Wichita on October 16, 2017, before ALJ Susan Toth. On February 28, 2018, the ALJ issued a written decision unfavorable to Plaintiff. (Tr. at 12-23.)

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 14.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, mitral valve prolapse, and adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood. (Id. at 14-15.) The ALJ also found Plaintiff had undergone treatment for hypertension, vitamin D and B12 deficiencies, and chest wall pain, but found these impairments were not severe. (Id. at 15.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or exceeded any impairment listed in the regulations. (Id. at 15-17.)

         The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work, as defined in the regulations, in that she can lift, carry, push and/or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; can sit for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; can frequently climb ramps and stairs; can understand, remember, and apply simple and intermediate instructions, but not complex instructions and maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for simple and intermediate tasks but not complex tasks.[2] (Id. at 17.)

         In determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her symptoms, but Plaintiff's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical and other evidence. (Tr. at 18.) The ALJ noted Plaintiff had both physical and mental health problems but found the evidence did not support debilitating limitations. The ALJ reviewed medical and other evidence pertaining to Plaintiff's symptoms.

         With respect to Plaintiff's fibromyalgia diagnosis, the ALJ stated that it was confirmed through tender point testing and that she also has mild degenerative changes to her lumbar spine and knees. The evidence shows that Plaintiff has had normal range of motion in her knees and ambulates with normal gait. Plaintiff does have muscle spasms, but they have improved with the use of medication. Plaintiff also receives trigger point injections. (Tr. at 19.) The ALJ stated that there is evidence that Plaintiff has remained physically active and that her treating physician has encouraged her to remain active and exercise regularly as the best treatment for her fibromyalgia. (Id.)

         The ALJ gave great weight to the opinions of the state agency medical consultants, Dr. Sarah Landers and Dr. John Listerman. The ALJ stated as follows with respect to these opinions: “Their opinions are well-explained, well-supported by the evidence discussed above, and consistent with the record as a whole.” (Tr. at 20.) The ALJ does not identify the opinions of the non-examining physicians but a review of their opinions show that they are consistent with the ALJ's RFC. (Tr. at 70-73, 85-88.)

         Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Mary Boyce, provided two opinions in which she opined that Plaintiff was unable to work. The ALJ gave little weight to those opinions, stating the following:

Dr. Boyce opines that the claimant is unable to perform even sedentary exertional work on a full-time basis. Her opinion, however, is not well-supported by the evidence, and many of her restrictions are not explained. Dr. Boyce's opinion that the claimant is rarely able to lift 10 pounds, for instance, is not explained, nor are her postural and manipulative restrictions, which seem out of line with the mild degenerative changes that diagnostic imaging has shown in her back and knees. The minimal ability to stand, as well as Dr. Boyce's opinion that the claimant would ...

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