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Cairns v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 30, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


WILLIAM J. MARTÍNEZ, District Judge.

This social security benefits appeal is before the Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Lori Michelle Cairns ("Plaintiff") challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for disability insurance benefits. The denial was affirmed by an administrative law judge, who ruled Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("Act"). This appeal followed.

For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security disability benefits is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff Lori Michelle Cairns ("Plaintiff") was born on March 31, 1972 and was 36 years old on the alleged disability onset date. (Admin. Record ("R.") (ECF No. 13) at 73.) Plaintiff has at least a high school education and past relevant work experience as a bookkeeper, property manager, office manager, and accountant. (R. at 20-21.)

Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on February 4, 2010, alleging that she had been disabled since March 1, 2009[1] due to several impairments, including brain injury, cognitive deficit, anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and pain in the neck and back. (R. 73.) Plaintiff's claim was reviewed by Disability Examiner Stanley Cook, with the assistance of Dr. Mark Berkowitz, Psy.D. (R. 72-83.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on June 4, 2010. (R. 11.) After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff's claims were heard by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael G. Heitz on August 26, 2011. (R. 28.) Plaintiff, consulting physician Dr. Robert Pelc, and vocational expert Martin Rauer testified at the administrative hearing. ( Id. )

On September 13, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process.[2] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2009. (R. 13.) At step two, he found that Plaintiff suffered from neck pain, back pain, headaches, cognitive deficit from mild traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder, all of which were severe impairments. (R. 14.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. ( Id. ) The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), finding that she had the ability to perform a range of "light" work as defined by the regulations. (R. 15.) With regard to mental limitations, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a mild deficit in her ability to carry out, understand and remember simple instructions, and a moderate deficit with regard to complex instructions and complex decisions. ( Id. ) Given this RFC, at step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (R. 20.) At step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform with her limitations. (R. 21.) Specifically, based on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work as a small product assembler and an electronics worker. (R. 21-22.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and therefore was not entitled to benefits. (R. 22.)

On February 8, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1.) Thus, the ALJ's September 13, 2011 decision is the final administrative action for purposes of review.


The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 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. Id. "It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record. Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006). "On the other hand, if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence." Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993).


This appeal is straight-forward. Plaintiff filed a five page opening brief, which included only one page of argument, and failed to file a reply brief. (ECF No. 21.) Plaintiff raises only two arguments. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to afford appropriate weight to certain medical opinions offered by Dr. Mary Ann Keatley, Plaintiff's treating neurotherapist, and Dr. Mark Berkowitz, the original examiner for the Social Security Administration. ( Id. at 3-4.) Plaintiff also alleges that her RFC fails to account for her inactility to stay on task. ( Id. at 4-5.) The Court will address each of these alleged errors below.

A. Treating Physician

The opinion of a treating physician is generally "entitled to great weight because it reflects expert judgment based on continuing observation of a patient's condition over a prolonged period of time." Williams v. Chater, 923 F.Supp. 1373, 1379 (D. Kan. 1996). However, an ALJ may disregard that opinion if it is contradicted by other medical evidence, or otherwise inconsistent with substantial evidence in the record. See Marshall v. Astrue, 315 F.Appx. 757, 759-60 (10th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). If a treating physician's ...

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