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J.S.S. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Kansas

December 10, 2019

J.S.S.,[1] Plaintiff,


          Sam A. Crow, U.S. District Senior Judge.

         On May 24, 2017, plaintiff filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of April 19, 2017. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. An administrative hearing was conducted on May 1, 2018. The administrative law judge (ALJ) considered the evidence and decided on June 4, 2018 that plaintiff was not qualified to receive benefits. This decision has been adopted by defendant. This case is now before the court upon plaintiff's request to reverse and remand the decision to deny plaintiff's application for benefits.


         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she was “disabled” under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E), during the time when the claimant had “insured status” under the Social Security program. See Potter v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 905 F.2d 1346, 1347 (10th Cir. 1990); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.130, 404.131. To be “disabled” means that the claimant is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence” is “'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This standard is “not high, ” but it is “more than a mere scintilla.'” Id. (quoting Consolidated Edison, 305 U.S. at 229). It does not require a preponderance of the evidence. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The court must examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the defendant's decision, and on that basis decide if substantial evidence supports the defendant's decision. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994) (quoting Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991)). The court may not reverse the defendant's choice between two reasonable but conflicting views, even if the court would have made a different choice if the matter were referred to the court de novo. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). The court reviews “only the sufficiency of the evidence, not its weight.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir. 2007).

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION (Tr. 27-38).

         There is a five-step evaluation process followed in these cases which is described in the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 28-29). First, it is determined whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. Second, the ALJ decides whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is “severe” or a combination of impairments which are “severe.” At step three, the ALJ decides whether the claimant's impairments or combination of impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Next, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity and then decides whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the requirements of his or her past relevant work. Finally, at the last step of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is able to do any other work considering his or her residual functional capacity, age, education and work experience.

         In steps one through four the burden is on the claimant to prove a disability that prevents performance of past relevant work. Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs in the economy with the claimant's residual functional capacity. Id. In this case, the ALJ decided plaintiff's application should be denied at the fifth step of the evaluation process.

         The ALJ made the following specific findings in his decision. First, plaintiff meets the insured status requirements for Social Security benefits through December 31, 2019. Second, plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 19, 2017. Third, plaintiff has the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease/cardiomyopathy by history, history of degenerative disc disease/degenerative joint disease of the cervical spine status post anterior cervical decompression and fusion; obesity; mild neurocognitive disorder; history of remote knee and shoulder surgeries; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Fourth, plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Fifth, plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) in that: he can lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can sit for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday, and stand and walk for 2 hours out of an 8-hour workday; he can never climb stairs, ramps, ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; he can occasionally balance and stoop; he can never kneel, crouch or crawl; he cannot reach overhead; and he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, pulmonary irritants, unprotected heights, excessive vibrations, and hazardous machinery. The ALJ further found that plaintiff can perform unskilled work only and is limited to routine, repetitive tasks that require no more than occasional contact with coworkers or supervisors. Finally, based upon the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work but that he could perform other jobs existing in the national economy, such as semiconductor assembler, printed circuit board inspector and wire wrapper.


         A. Background

         Plaintiff's formal education ceased after the seventh grade. He worked thereafter in the construction trade or as a warehouse worker. Plaintiff had a severe heart attack on or about April 18, 2017 when he was mowing the grass. He was 46 years old. Plaintiff has reported that it was estimated he had no heartbeat or breathing for eight to eleven minutes. (Tr. 518). Most fortuntately, he was resuscitated and given hospital treatment, eventually being released on or about May 1, 2017.

         Plaintiff centers most of his arguments to reverse and remand upon evidence concerning his mental capacity and impairments from Dr. Marc Quillen, plaintiff, and plaintiff's wife.

         B. Dr. Quillen

         Plaintiff had a consultative evaluation by Dr. Marc Quillen on July 25, 2017. Plaintiff reported short-term memory loss, losing his train of thought easily, being forgetful, being easily distracted or “spacing off”, losing focus during tasks and not finishing tasks. Plaintiff also reported impaired ...

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