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Carter v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Colorado

March 21, 2014

PAULINE CARTER, 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 February 26, 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 a right hip fracture, degenerative joint disease of the knees, and depression. Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits in 2002 and was awarded a closed period of benefits for the period of April 28, 2001, through June 5, 2002. However, plaintiff continued to receive benefit payments until June 2007, when she was notified that benefits would no longer be paid. Plaintiff requested reconsideration of that determination and the case was processed as a request for hearing on an initial application. Following protracted proceedings at the administrative level, [2] a hearing was held on November 27, 2012. At the time of this hearing, plaintiff was 56 years old. She has high school education and past relevant work experience as an order clerk and customer service representative. She did not engage in substantial gainful activity between April 28, 2001, her alleged date of onset, and December 31, 2007, her date last insured. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a).

The ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled after June 5, 2002, because she experienced medical improvement in her impairment related to her ability to work, and therefore that she was not entitled to disability insurance benefits past that date. Although the medical evidence established that plaintiff suffered from severe impairments after June 5, 2002, the judge concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform unskilled sedentary work with postural limitations. Although these findings precluded plaintiff’s past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy 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).

A claimant who has previously been found disabled is subject to periodic review to determine her continuing entitlement to benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a). The standards for deciding continuing eligibility apply both when benefits are sought to be terminated and when the Commissioner awards a closed period of benefits. Shepherd v. Apfel, 184 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir. 1999). Benefits will be discontinued when there has been medical improvement in the claimant’s impairments that is related to the ability to do work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a). “Medical improvement” is any decrease in the medical severity of the impairments based on changes in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings associated therewith. Id., § 404.1594(b)(1). Medical improvement is related to the ability to do work if these changes correspond to an increase in the claimant’s functional capacity to perform basic work activities. Id., §§ 404.1594(b)(3) & (b)(4).

The Commissioner has established a seven-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant who has previously been found disabled has experienced medical improvement related to the ability to do work:

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 claimant’s impairment meets or equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations.
3. If the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must then determine whether there has been any medical improvement in that condition.
4. If there has been medical improvement, the ALJ must consider whether such improvement is related to the ability to work.
5. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has experienced medical improvement related to the ability to work, she must then determine whether ...

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