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Lopez v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Colorado

March 20, 2014

PEGGY LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER

Robert E. Blackburn United States District Judge

The matter before me is plaintiff’s Complaint [#1], [1] filed January 22, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner’s decision denying plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. I have jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The matter has been fully briefed, obviating the need for oral argument. I affirm.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled as a result of lupus, arthritis, chronic bilateral wrist and hand pain, fibromyalgia, and depression. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits in 2004.[2] After the application was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Following protracted proceedings at the administrative level, [3] a hearing was held on May 17, 2012. At the time of this hearing, plaintiff was 47 years old. She has high school general equivalency degree and past relevant work experience as a blackjack dealer. She did not engage in substantial gainful activity between February 25, 2004, her alleged date of onset, and March 31, 2006, her date last insured. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a).

The ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to disability insurance benefits. Although the evidence established that plaintiff suffered from severe impairments, the judge concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. Plaintiff’s alleged mental impairment was found to be non-severe. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary work that permitted a sit/stand option and imposed further postural, manipulative, and environmental limitations. Although this determination precluded plaintiff’s past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national and local economies that she could perform. The ALJ therefore found plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal court.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act only if her physical and/or mental impairments preclude her from performing both her previous work and any other “substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). “When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. To be disabling, the claimant’s condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled:

1. The ALJ must first ascertain whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is working is not disabled regardless of the medical findings.
2. The ALJ must then determine whether the claimed impairment is “severe.” A “severe impairment” must significantly limit the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
3. The ALJ must then determine if the impairment meets or equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations.
4. If the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform his past work despite any limitations.
5. If the claimant does not have the residual functional capacity to perform her past work, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and substantial work in the economy. This determination is made on the basis of the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f). See also Williams v. Bowen 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294 n.5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review ...


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