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Rucker v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 11, 2016

GINGER MAY RUCKER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

Kathleen M Tafoya United States Magistrate Judge

The matter before the court is Claimant Ginger May Rucker’s appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and Widow’s or Widower’s Insurance Benefits (“WIB”) pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). (Doc. No. 1, filed October 9, 2014.) Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Claimant applied for DIB in July 2012 and SSI and WIB in August 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since February 1, 2009 by restless leg syndrome, tendonitis in the back, arthritis “in lumbar, ” pinched sciatica, and depression. (See Doc. No. 13, Social Security Administrative Record [AR] at 193, 209, 219, 231.) After holding a hearing on her claims, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a written ruling in February 2014 finding Claimant not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Id. at 14-27, 33-62.) Though the ALJ found several of Claimant’s impairments severe enough to significantly affect her work, the ALJ found that none of those impairments met or equaled the severity required to presumptively qualify Claimant as disabled under the Commissioner’s regulations. (Id. at 18-20.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant was not disabled because, despite her impairments, she still had the functional capacity to work as a cashier, the type of job she had held in the past. (Id. at 26-27.) The Commissioner’s Appeals Council subsequently denied Claimant’s request for review (id. at 1), making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 422.210(a). Claimant timely sought review by the court.

STATUTORY AND REGULATORY BACKGROUND

The Commissioner has established a five step, sequential process for determining whether a claimant is disabled under Titles II and XVI of the Act:

1. The ALJ must first ascertain whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who works is not disabled, regardless of the medical findings.
2. The ALJ must then determine whether the claimed impairment is “severe.” A “severe” impairment significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
3. The ALJ must then determine if the impairment meets or “equals” in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations.
4. If the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can still perform any past work despite his or her limitations.
5. If the claimant no longer retains the ability to perform past work, then the ALJ must decide whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and substantial work in the economy despite the claimant’s limitations.

See Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). After that, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that, despite the claimant’s impairments, he or she is still capable of performing substantial gainful work in the national economy. Id. If at any point the Commissioner conclusively finds that the claimant is or is not disabled during the five-step review process, the analysis ends. See Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Review of the Commissioner’s disability decision by the Court is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard, whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence, and whether the decision comports with the relevant regulations and case law. Hamilton v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992); Brown v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 1194, 1196 (10th Cir. 1990); Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). An ALJ’s failure to apply the correct legal standard constitutes an independent and sufficient basis for the Court to reverse the ALJ’s decision. Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). Likewise, an ALJ’s failure to supply the Court with a sufficient basis to determine that the ALJ followed appropriate legal principles is also grounds for reversal. Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quoting Smith v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 1284 (11th Cir. 1983)).

Substantial evidence is evidence a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Brown, 912 F.2d at 1196. A finding is supported by substantial evidence if it is supported by “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance” of evidence. Gossett v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 802, 804 (10th Cir. 1988) (quoting Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987)). Evidence is insubstantial when 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 Court may not “reweigh the evidence” or “substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner.” Jozefowicz v. Heckler, 811 F.2d 1352, 1357 (10th Cir. 1987). So long as there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s decision, the decision must stand, even if the Court would have reached a different result. See Ellison, 929 F.2d at 536.

ANALYSIS

Claimant alleges the ALJ erred in two major ways. First, Claimant argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s step-four residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination that Claimant is capable of performing “light work.”[1] (Doc. No. 16 [Opening Br.] at 14, filed Feb. 10, 2015.) Second, Claimant argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s finding that Claimant can still perform her past work as a cashier. (Id. at 4.)

1. The ALJ’s Finding That Claimant Is Capable of Performing Light Work

Before completing step four of the disability review process, the ALJ must assess the claimant’s RFC, which is the most the claimant can do in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis despite the limitations imposed by his or her impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *1, 3. When determining the claimant’s RFC, the ALJ must consider all the relevant evidence and all of the claimant’s medically determinable impairments. Id. at *2. Then, in the ALJ’s written decision, the ALJ must explain how the evidence supports each of his or her conclusions. Id. at *7. As part of that explanation, the ALJ must “cit[e] specific medical facts . .. ...


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