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Nguyen v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Colorado

January 12, 2015

QUOC NGUYEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Kristen L. Mix United States Magistrate Judge

This matter is before the Court[1] on the Social Security Administrative Record [#10], [2] filed January 30, 2014, in support of Plaintiff’s Complaint [#1] seeking review of the decision of Defendant Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff’s claim for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416 (“Title XVI”) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 (the “Act”) and disability insurance benefits pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404 (“Title II”) of the Act. On May 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#16] (the “Brief”). On July 31, 2014, Defendant filed a Response [#22] (the “Response”). The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on June 18, 2009. Tr. 13, 169, 176.[3] On June 17, 2010[4], Plaintiff filed for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. Tr. 169-83. Born on August 2, 1964, Plaintiff was 44 years old, defined as a younger individual, on his alleged onset date. Br. [#16] at 6; Tr. 169. On April 10, 2012, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Lowell Fortune (the “ALJ”). Tr. 38-65. On May 3, 2012, the ALJ entered his Decision, finding that Plaintiff was “not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.” Tr. 29. Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied his request for review of the ALJ’s decision. Tr. 1-7. Therefore, the ALJ’s decision became a final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 422.210(a).[5]

When reaching his decision, the ALJ made several determinations. The ALJ determined that, Plaintiff “meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014.” Tr. 15. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 18, 2009, the alleged onset date . . . .” Tr. 15. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has the equivalent to a 10th grade education and is able to communicate in English.” Tr. 18. Regarding Plaintiff’s alleged disabilities, the ALJ found that he “has the following impairments that are medically determinable and ‘severe’: adjustment disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder; neck pain, back, and shoulder pain; headaches; effective disorder; and anxiety disorder . . . .” Tr. 15. However, the ALJ noted that

there are some qualifications and/or conditions to the impairments stated above. The impairment of headaches is only questionably medically determinable. That is, the evidence of medical determinability is questionable at best. Consequently, some of the impairments stated above will not require or result in a correlative functional limitation in the claimant’s residual functional capacity.

Tr. 15. The ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” Tr. 16. After reviewing the information in the record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)

to perform a full range of light work with the following exceptions. The [Plaintiff] must never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The [Plaintiff] is unable to extend the neck for prolonged periods of time. The [Plaintiff] must never reach overhead. The [Plaintiff] must never be exposed to unprotected heights. The [Plaintiff] is unable to perform assembly-line work.[6] The [Plaintiff] cannot engage in work requiring hyper-vigilance.[7] The [Plaintiff] is able to have frequent contact and/or interaction with the public and coworkers.

Tr. 14. Based on the RFC and the testimony of Pat Paulini (the “VE”), an impartial vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “is capable of performing past relevant work as a[n] electronics assembler and manicurist.” Tr. 28. The ALJ explained: “This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by” Plaintiff’s RFC. Tr. 28.

He therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 29.

II. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

Pursuant to the Act:

[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a “disability.” A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.”

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a claimant is disabled if he 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying disabling impairment must be demonstrated by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic” findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).

“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 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 Court reviews a final decision of the Commissioner by examining the administrative record and determining “whether the [ALJ’s] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However, the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Harper v. Colvin, 528 F.App’x 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court “may not displace the agency’s choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if the Court may have “made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).

A. Legal Standard

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) uses a five-step framework to determine whether a claimant meets the necessary conditions to receive Social Security benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and if the claimant fails at any of these steps, consideration of any subsequent steps is unnecessary. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (“If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.”). The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether a claimant is “presently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quoting Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1142 (10th Cir. 2004)); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If not, the ALJ considers at step two, whether a claimant has “a medically severe impairment or impairments.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). “An impairment is severe under the applicable regulations if it significantly limits a claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). Next, at step three, the ALJ considers whether a claimant’s medically severe impairments are equivalent to a condition “listed in the appendix of the relevant disability regulation, ” i.e., the “Listings.” Id. (quoting Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Before reaching step four, the ALJ is required to determine the claimant’s RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). An RFC represents “the most [a claimant] can still do despite his limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir.1988) (noting that the RFC is “the claimant’s maximum sustained work capability”). “If a claimant’s impairments are not equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ must consider, at step four, whether a claimant’s impairments prevent h[im] from performing h[is] past relevant work.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citing Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). “Even if a claimant is so impaired, the agency considers, at step five, whether [ ]he possesses the sufficient [RFC] to perform other work in the national economy.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

B. Substantial Evidence

An ALJ must consider all evidence and explain why he or she finds a claimant not disabled. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). However, the ALJ need not specifically “reference everything in the administrative record.” Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1148. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1140 (internal quotation marks omitted). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). A decision by the ALJ is not based on substantial evidence “if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record . . . .” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In other words, the Court’s determination of whether the ALJ has supported his ruling with substantial evidence “must be based upon the record taken as a whole.” Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994). Further, evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In addition, “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).

III. Analysis

Plaintiff requests judicial review of the ALJ’s decision denying him disability insurance benefits and supplemental social security income benefits. Br. [#16] at 1. Plaintiff brings four challenges to the ALJ’s findings. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “erred by failing to correctly apply the ‘Treating Physician Rule’ to the medical evidence of [Plaintiff’s] mental and physical impairments.” Br. [#16] at 5, 15-18. Second, he argues that “the ALJ’s credibility determinations are based on irrelevant factors and incompetent evidence and therefore constitute an abuse of [his] discretion.” Id. at 5, 18-20. Third, Plaintiff argues that the RFC the ALJ assigned in this case “is not based on substantial evidence and fails to address all the limitations resulting from his severe and non-severe impairments.” Id. at 5, 20-21. Finally, he argues that “the ALJ erred by concluding that [Plaintiff] could perform his past relevant work when that work requires skills and abilities that are restricted in [Plaintiff’s] RFC and the ALJ made insufficient findings of fact to support this conclusion.” Id. at 5, 21-23. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

A. The ALJ’s Consideration of Dr. Aylesworth’s Opinion

Plaintiff argues that “Dr. Aylesworth was a treating physician” and “the ALJ failed to make findings with respect to four of the six factors relevant to the weight to be given that evidence, and [ ] the findings that [the ALJ] did make, at least in part, directly contradicted the evidence in the record . . . .” Br. [#16] at 18.

The Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ and the Commissioner. Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1173 (10th Cir. 2005); White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 905, 908, 909 (10th Cir. 2001). However, the conclusions reached by the ALJ must be reasonable and consistent with the evidence. See Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 988 (10th Cir. 1994) (explaining that the Court must affirm if, considering the evidence as a whole, there is sufficient evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion). An ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion in the record, although the weight given each opinion will vary according to the relationship between the disability claimant and the medical professional.” Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 401.1527(d)). “If an ALJ intends to rely on a nontreating physician or examiner’s opinion, he must explain the weight he is giving to it.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §416.927(e)(2)(ii)). Regardless of whether a doctor is a treating or nontreating professional, all medical opinions must be weighed as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). This provision requires an ALJ to consider: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician’s opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area in which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ’s attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §416.927(c). Notably, the ALJ need not discuss each individual factor. See Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007). Nevertheless, the ALJ must consider every factor in determining the weight to assign a medical opinion, and “give good reasons in the notice of determination or decision for the weight he ultimately assigns the opinion.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1301 (10th Cir. 2003) (quotation marks, internal brackets, and citation omitted).

Generally, treating physicians’ opinions are given controlling weight. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003). Pursuant to the Act, the “opinion of a treating physician concerning the nature and extent of a claimant’s disability is entitled to ‘controlling weight’ when it is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques’ and is ‘not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant’s] case record.’” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 761 (10th cir. 2003) (brackets in original). As the Tenth Circuit has explained:

The treating physician’s opinion is given particular weight because of his “unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). This requires a relationship of both duration and frequency. “The treating physician doctrine is based on the assumption that a medical professional who has dealt with a claimant and his maladies over a long period of time will have a deeper insight into the medical condition of the claimant than will a person who has examined a claimant but once, or who has only seen the claimant’s medical records.” Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994) ...

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