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Stilson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 4, 2016



Craig B. Shaffer United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Shaffer

This action comes before the court pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83(c) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision denying Robert Lynn Stilson’s (“Plaintiff”) application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated September 29, 2014, this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge “for all purposes” pursuant to the Pilot Program to Implement the Direct Assignment of Civil Cases to Full Time Magistrate Judges and Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (See Doc. No. 25). The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed February 7, 2014) (Doc. No. 1), Defendant’s Answer (filed April 17, 2014) (Doc. No. 12), Plaintiff’s Opening Brief (filed June 18, 2014) (Doc. No. 16), Defendant’s Response Brief (filed August 22, 2014) (Doc. No. 20), Plaintiff’s Reply (filed September 12, 2014) (Doc. No. 21), the entire case file, the administrative record, and the applicable law. For the following reasons, the court affirms the Commissioner’s decision.


In March 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits, alleging a disability onset date of November 30, 2009. (See Social Security Administrative Record (hereinafter “AR”) at 23, 41, 226). Plaintiff alleged that his ability to work was limited by chronic back pain. See Id. at 361. Plaintiff was born on October 21, 1959, and was 50 years old on the date of his alleged disability onset. Id. at 31, 174. He completed the 9th grade and has worked in a variety of jobs including as a construction foreman, landscape foreman, machinists helper, and warehouse worker. Id. at 47, 222. After his initial application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on August 15, 2012, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). See Id. at 37-59, 132-133.

Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified that he suffered from debilitating back pain as well as depression. Id. at 41. He stated that after being laid off in 2009, he attempted to return to work in 2010, but his back pain forced him to quit after four days. Id. When asked whether he could lift twenty pounds, Plaintiff stated that lifting any amount would exacerbate his pain. Id. at 52. He testified that he could barely carry groceries home from the store without suffering from back spasms. Id. at 43. He also stated that his back would spasm if he sat straight up or walked for more than an hour at a time. Id. at 49-50. However, he also testified that he tried to walk for at least an hour every day, and that he could drive, walk his dog, and cook. Id. at 45-46. With regard to his depression, Plaintiff testified that he became depressed when thinking about his family’s suffering. Id. at 49. According to Plaintiff, counseling did not help alleviate his depression. Id. at 51.

A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified at the hearing. Id. at 53-57. The VE testified that Plaintiff’s prior work experience was classified as ranging from “light” to “heavy” by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles exertional guidelines. Id. at 54-55. The ALJ asked the VE to assume hypothetically that an individual of Plaintiff’s age - with the same education and past work experience as Plaintiff - had the following limitations: (1) lift no more than 20 pounds at a time, and 10 pounds repetitively; (2) occasionally stooping, squatting, climbing of inclines and stairs; and (3) a simple, unskilled Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”)[1] of 1 or 2. Id. at 55. The VE testified that an individual with those limitations could not perform the work involved in Plaintiff’s previous jobs because it would be too heavy or complex. Id.

The VE, however, did identify three other “light” exertional jobs, with an SVP: 2, which someone with those limitations could perform and testified about the number of each position in the regional and national economy: (1) housekeeper (3, 600 Colorado; 180, 000 National); (2) electrical assembler (7, 200 Colorado; 172, 000 National); and (3) ticket taker (970 Colorado; 120, 000 National). Id. at 55. The ALJ then asked the VE to assume that the individual was limited to “sit down work.” Id. at 56. The VE testified that all previous work would be eliminated. Id.

Plaintiff’s counsel then asked the VE to assume that the individual would be required to lie down for at least an hour - in addition to normal breaks and lunch periods - after performing an activity such as walking or standing. Id. at 57. The VE testified that under those circumstances, the individual would not be able to maintain gainful employment. Id.

On September 17, 2012, the ALJ issued his decision denying benefits. Id. at 20-36. The ALJ’s opinion followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[2] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since November 30, 2009. Id. at 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s back pain constituted a severe impairment. Id. He further concluded that although Plaintiff had been diagnosed with depression, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Plaintiff’s depression imposed more than a minimal limitation on his ability to perform basic mental work-related activities. Id. at 26.

At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 27.

The ALJ then assessed the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).

Id. at 28. The ALJ specified that “light jobs” involve lifting no more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing and walking 6 out of 8 hours, and sitting 2 out of 8 hours. Id. at 28 n.1.

In fashioning Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ discussed much of the medical evidence in Plaintiff’s records. The ALJ noted that although Plaintiff’s medical records established the existence of a severe physical impairment, there was simply an insufficient amount of evidence to demonstrate that this impairment rendered Plaintiff totally incapable of working. Id. at 29.

The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff’s statements regarding his alleged symptoms and limitations were inconsistent with his daily activities of living. Id. In addition, the ALJ observed that the minimal objective medical evidence - as opposed to Plaintiff’s subjective statements to his providers - showed only mild findings. Id. The ALJ credited the opinion of Dr. Roseanne K. Iverson, a consulting examining physician, who examined Plaintiff and provided opinions regarding Plaintiff’s limitations.[3]Id. at 35. Dr. Iversen concluded that Plaintiff’s medical history and physical examination were incongruous with Plaintiff’s observed mobility outside of the exam. Id. at 286. Specifically, during his physical exam, Plaintiff had ...

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