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M.L.I. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 21, 2019

M.L.I.,[1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL,[2] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



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

         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. See L.S. v. Saul, No. 19-1075-JWB, 2019 WL 5455822, at *1-2 (D. Kan. Oct. 24, 2019).

         II. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act. (Tr. at 232, 234.) Both applications alleged a disability beginning September 26, 2014, when Plaintiff was 48 years old. (Id.) The claims were denied both initially and upon reconsideration by the Commissioner, after which Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ALJ Susan Toth conducted a hearing in Wichita, Kansas, on February 13, 2017. (Tr. at 36.) Plaintiff testified at the hearing, as did vocational expert Cindy A. Younger. Additional information was gathered and submitted from several sources after the hearing, including from a consultative medical examination requested by the ALJ. (See Exhs. 17F-21F.) The ALJ issued an opinion unfavorable to Plaintiff on April 6, 2018. (Tr. at 7.)

         The ALJ first concluded Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Tr. at 13.) At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since September 26, 2014, the alleged onset date, because pay stubs shows Plaintiff had earnings above the threshold monthly SGA levels from June of 2016, when he began a job at Rubbermaid, through January of 2017. (Id.)

         At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: polymyalgia/polyarthralgia, chronic pain syndrome, depressive disorder not otherwise specified, and cognitive disorder. (Tr. at 13.) The ALJ noted a history of other conditions, including hypothyroidism, headache, B complex deficiencies, anorexia, anemia, and alcohol abuse, but found no functional limitations from these conditions. (Id.) The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's treating physician, Bryan K. Dennett, M.D., had diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome in January of 2017, but the ALJ found these were not medically determinable impairments because “these diagnoses are not accompanied with any corresponding objective testing or laboratory results.” (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in the regulations. (Id. at 14.) With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ found they did not satisfy the “paragraph B” criteria of the listings in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P. App. 1, §§ 12.02 or 12.04 because Plaintiff had only moderate (rather than marked) limitations in the functional categories covered by paragraph B. (Tr. at 14-15.) The ALJ further found Plaintiff did not satisfy the paragraph C criteria. (Tr. at 15.)

         The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff's RFC was as follows: he can perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b); can occasionally lift and carry up to 100 pounds and can frequently lift and carry up to 20 pounds; can sit for 6 hours at one time without interruption for a total of 7 hours in an 8-hour workday; can stand for 3 hours at one time without interruption for a total of 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; can walk for 2 hours at one time for a total of 3 hours in an 8-hour workday; can frequently reach in all directions including overhead; can frequently handle, finger, feel and push/pull with the upper extremities; can frequently operate foot controls; can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds and occasionally balance; can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; can frequently operate a motor vehicle and be exposed to humidity and wetness, extreme cold, extreme heat and vibrations; can perform simple, routine and repetitive work but not as an integral part of a team and not at a fast-paced production rate; can occasionally make simple work-related decisions and occasionally interact with supervisors and co-workers but may not interact with the general public. (Tr. at 15-16.)

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded at step four that Plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. at 22.) At step five, the ALJ found there were unskilled jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform at the light exertional level such as collator operator, marker/tagger, and sub-assembler of electrical equipment. ...

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