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Ward v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Colorado

March 5, 2015

GEORGIA D. WARD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

PHILIP A. BRIMMER, United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Georgia D. Ward’s complaint [Docket No. 1], filed on July 10, 2012. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the “Commissioner”) denying plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83c.[1] The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. BACKGROUND

On April 24, 2009, plaintiff filed for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI. R. at 44. Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since April 24, 2009. Id. After an initial administrative denial of her claim, plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 19, 2011. Id. On March 1, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff’s claim. Id. at 55. Plaintiff’s appeal to the Appeals Counsel was denied, id. at 56, and, on July 10, 2012, plaintiff commenced the present case. Docket No. 1. On September 10, 2012, the Commissioner moved to remand the case. Docket No. 6. On September 12, 2012, the case was remanded, Docket No. 7, and, based upon receipt of additional evidence, the Appeals Counsel directed the ALJ to consider plaintiff’s claim de novo. R. at 68-69. On February 13, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing and, on March 1, 2013, issued a decision. R. at 14, 24.

The ALJ considered evidence from the time period after his 2011 decision and found that the additional evidence did not alter his original 2011 finding that plaintiff was not disabled. R. at 23. As a result, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “anxiety disorder, affective disorder, obesity, disorders of the cervical spine, carpal tunnel syndrome in the left upper extremity and fibromyalgia.” R. at 17.

The ALJ found that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations’ listed impairments, id., and ruled that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she requires a sit stand option; she can only occasionally bend, squat or kneel; she cannot perform overhead work and should not be exposed to unprotected heights; she can frequently perform manipulative functions such as handling or fingering with her non-dominant upper extremity; she cannot perform complex tasks, meaning she is limited to an SVP of 3 or less; and she should not interact with the general public.

R. at 19. Based upon this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff “has no past relevant work, ” but that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” R. at 23.

Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(a) and 416.1484, the ALJ’s decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

Review of the Commissioner’s finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in her decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). Moreover, “[e]vidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The district court will not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ’s findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, “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).

B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). The steps of the evaluation are:

(1) whether the claimant is currently working; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing his past relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing any work.

Trimiar v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326, 1329 (10th Cir. 1992) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f)). A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a case of disability. However, “[i]f the claimant is not considered disabled at step three, but has satisfied her burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability under steps one, two, and four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience.” See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987). While the claimant has the initial burden of proving a disability, “the ALJ has a basic duty of ...


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