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Garrett v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 27, 2019

Michelle Renee Garrett, Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Michelle Renee Garrett applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 and supplemental social security (SSI) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3), on January 26, 2015. The Commissioner of Social Security denied her application on upon initial review (on June 19, 2015), and on reconsideration (on November 13, 2015). Garrett sought review by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Following a hearing on April 11, 2017, the ALJ determined that Garrett was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 16-30). The decision of the Commissioner became final when the Appeals Council declined Garrett’s request for review on July 26, 2016.

         Garrett then filed this appeal, raising three arguments. First, she contends that the ALJ erred in failing to find that her knee and shoulder pain were not severe impairments. Second, she argues that the ALJ erroneously determined a residual functional capacity (RFC) which would allow her to perform other work in the national economy. Third, she contends that the ALJ erroneously weighed the medical evidence in the record. For the reasons provided herein, the court finds that the Commissioner’s decision was supported by substantial evidence contained in the record, and the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         Plaintiff-claimant has stated that she became disabled beginning July 20, 2011 due to ailments including fibromyalgia, depression, asthma, insomnia, anxiety, disorders of the cervical and lumbar spine, hypothyroidism, hypertension, and prediabetes.[2] At the hearing, she also stated that she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and carpal tunnel syndrome, but the ALJ noted that while COPD is mentioned in Garrett’s medical records, there is no objective information showing a negative effect on her lung functioning, and that the condition did not appear to be severe. The carpal tunnel condition appeared to be fully corrected by surgery. The ALJ did determine that the reported fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and spinal disorders were severe impairments, but that these did not rise to the level of any listed impairment.

         The ALJ ultimately determined that Garrett retained the RFC to allow light work, with the specified limitations. She can walk or stand (each) for 6 hours of an 8-hour workday, and can frequently lift 10 pounds. She can occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds, climb stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel, balance, reach or handle overhead, and interact with co-workers. She cannot climb (ropes, scaffolds, or ladders), crawl, have prolonged exposure to cold temperature extremes or vibrating machinery, or interact with the general public.

         Garrett was born October 13, 1967. She has previously worked as a machine operator and hand match supervisor. The detailed facts of the case, which are incorporated herein, are set forth independently in the ALJ’s opinion (Tr. 18-29) and the brief of the petitioner (Dkt. 13, at 3-18) and discussed within the argument section of the Commissioner’s response (Dkt. 14, at 4-10).

         Under the Act, the court takes as conclusive the factual findings of the Commissioner so long as these are “supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court thus looks to whether those factual findings have such support, and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence” means “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.” Barkley v. Astrue, 2010 WL 3001753, *1 (D. Kan. July 28, 2010) (citing Castellano v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1028 (10th Cir. 1994)). In making this determination, the court must “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.3d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)).

         A claimant is disabled if he or she suffers from “a physical or mental impairment” which stops the claimant “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.” Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). 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.” Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-22 (2002)).

         Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). 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. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, at *2.

         The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the Commissioner 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. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084; see also Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988)). If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity, which is the claimant’s ability “to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.” Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545.

         Upon assessing the claimant’s residual functional capacity, the Commissioner moves on to steps four and five, which require the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant can either perform his or her past relevant work or whether he or she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Williams, 844 F.2d at 751). The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of his or her past relevant work. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite his or her alleged impairments, the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Id.

         The plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to determine at Step 2 that her shoulder and knee pain were severe. The court finds no error, as the ALJ did determine that some impairments (including Garrett’s depression), were severe. He then proceeded to conduct a full RFC analysis at Step 3, which included particularized references to Garrett’s physical condition. (And, as the court finds below, that RFC assessment was supported by substantial evidence). The failure to denominate some of Garrett’s impairments as “severe” at an earlier part of the 5 Step sequential process is not reversible err. See Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (105h Cir. 2016).

         And the court does find that the RFC adopted by the ALJ is supported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ did not err in failing to consider evidence relating to her shoulder and knee impairments. With respect to these physical limitations, the ALJ specifically referenced medical records of the imaging of Garrett’s shoulders and knees, her ability to walk with normal gait and a lack of swelling in the joints, good range of motion, normal strength and sensation, and the ability to walk without a cane or other assistive device. The ALJ further noted that these findings were consistent with two consulting sources and with the reviewing state agency physician.

         The plaintiff correctly notes that there is evidence in the record showing tenderness to her knees and an instance of observed antalgic gait, but these indications are limited in number and severity. She also notes the extent ...

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