United States District Court, D. Colorado
THOMAS D. OSLAND, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
R. BROOKE JACKSON, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on review of the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff Thomas D. Osland's application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This appeal is based upon the administrative record and briefs submitted by the parties. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the role of the district court is to examine the record and determine whether it "contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] decision and whether the [Commissioner] applied the correct legal standards." Rickets v. Apfel, 16 F.Supp.2d 1280, 1287 (D. Colo. 1998). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). Evidence is not substantial if it "constitutes mere conclusion." Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992).
The Court "may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." Harper v. Colvin, 528 F.Appx. 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (citations omitted). Thus, although some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court "may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, " even if the Court might "have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo." Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007). However, the Court 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 v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). "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). "Failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal." Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994).
Upon review, the district court "shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 45 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Mr. Osland applied for disability insurance benefits on or around February 24, 2011. He claimed inability to work since his alleged onset date of November 1, 2009 due to bipolar disorder and hand tremors. R. 403, 544. Mr. Osland's date last insured (DLI) was June 30, 2013. The Commissioner denied Mr. Osland's application on June 20, 2011. Mr. Osland then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), which was conducted on November 6, 2012. On November 16, 2012 ALJ Lowell Fortune issued an opinion denying benefits. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Osland's request for review on May 8, 2014. Thereafter, Mr. Osland filed a timely appeal with this Court.
DENIAL OF THE CLAIM
To qualify for disability insurance benefits, an individual must (a) meet the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (the "Act"); (b) not have attained retirement age; (c) file an application; and (d) be under a "disability" as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C § 423(a)(1). Disability is defined as being unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant carries the burden of establishing that he was disabled prior to his date last insured. See Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1069.
The Social Security Administration uses a five-part process to determine whether a claimant qualifies for disability insurance benefits. 20 CFR § 404.1520. At step one the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). The ALJ found that Mr. Osland had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of November 1, 2009. R. 331.
At step two the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is "severe" or a combination of impairments that are "severe." 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). The ALJ found that Mr. Osland suffered from the following severe impairments: affective disorder, personality disorder, and essential tremors of the hands. R. 331. The ALJ also found that Mr. Osland suffered from the following non-severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and sleep apnea. Id. Finally, the ALJ determined that Mr. Osland's alleged traumatic brain injury (or cognitive disorder) and numbness on the left side of his body were non-medically determinable impairments based on the lack of medical evidence supporting either condition. R. 332.
At step three the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The ALJ determined that none of Mr. Osland's impairments - alone or in combination - met or medically equaled one of the impairments in the Listings. R. 333-34.
Before reaching step four, the ALJ is required to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). See R. 16; 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). An RFC represents "the most [a claimant] can still do despite his limitations." 20 CFR § 404.1545(a)(1). The RFC is "the claimant's maximum sustained work capability." Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988). The ALJ found that Mr. Osland has an RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following limitations: the claimant cannot ambulate over uneven terrain; should avoid climbing ladders, scaffolds, and ropes; is able to perform handing and fingering frequently; is unable to work in an assembly line due to ...