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Hunsaker v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 4, 2016

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


Nina Y. Wang Magistrate Judge

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 Plaintiff Kathleen R. Hunsaker’s (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Hunsaker”) application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated July 14, 2015 [#19] and the Case Reassignment dated July 15, 2015 [#20], this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge for all purposes pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.2. The court has carefully considered the Complaint [#1, filed Aug. 15, 2014], Defendant’s Answer [#8, filed Feb. 2, 2015], Plaintiff’s Opening Brief [#12, filed Apr. 6, 2015], Defendant’s Response Brief [#13, filed May 6, 2015], the entire case file, the administrative record, and applicable case law. For the following reasons, I AFFIRM the Commissioner’s final decision.


Plaintiff filed an application for DIB under Title II of the Act and an application for SSI under Title VI of the Act on July 26, 2011. [#1 at ¶ 4]. Plaintiff claims that she was and continues to be disabled as a result of degenerative cervical disc disease and degenerative lumbar disc disease. [#1 at ¶ 4]. She dates her medical condition from 2001, and states that the pain in her neck and back significantly increased after an accident on October 19, 2001, when a company vehicle she was driving was struck from behind by a man riding a bicycle. [#12 at 7 (citing #9-8 at 313; #9-9 at 346)]. Her alleged onset of disability, May 20, 2011, is a decade later. [#9-5 at 163]. Plaintiff’s DIB and SSI applications were denied in a notice dated February 13, 2012. [#9-3 at 98].[1] On April 16, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing. The hearing took place on March 12, 2013 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Lowell Fortune. [#9-2 at 36]. The ALJ issued a hearing decision on April 8, 2013, which denied the application for disability benefits at step four of the five-step sequence for determining disability. [#9-2 at 16]; see Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (summarizing steps).

At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hunsaker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 20, 2011, the alleged onset date. [#9-2 at 21]. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Hunsaker “has the following severe impairments: degenerative cervical disc disease and degenerative lumbar disc disease.” [#9-2 at 21]. The ALJ noted that Ms. Hunsaker has alleged hypertension, but the ALJ found that to be a non-severe impairment because there is no evidence it imposes more than a minimal restriction in the ability to perform basic physical or mental work activities. [#9-2 at 21]. The ALJ also noted that the hypertension is controlled by medication and there is no evidence of secondary effects. [#9-2 at 21]. The ALJ acknowledged that Ms. Hunsaker also alleges fatigue and insomnia; however, the ALJ found these to not be medically determinable impairments, as there has been no medical work up or diagnosis of these complaints. [#9-2 at 21].

At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Hunsaker did 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. [#9-2 at 23]. The ALJ noted that Ms. Hunsaker’s degenerative lumbar and cervical disc disease does not meet or medically equal the criteria in listing 1.04 because there is no evidence of herniated disc or spinal stenosis, no evidence of nerve root compression, or muscle atrophy or weakness, or sensory or reflex loss. [#9-2 at 23]. The ALJ then concluded that Ms. Hunsaker had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), except that: (1) she is unable to lift/carry more than 10 pounds frequently and 10 pounds occasionally; (2) she is frequently able to push/pull or otherwise operate hand controls; (3) she can stand/walk 4 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit 6-8 hours in an 8-hour workday; (4) she can frequently reach in all directions bilaterally, except occasionally reach overhead bilaterally; (5) she can frequently balance, bend, stoop, but never crouch or crawl; (6) she is able to climb ramps and stairs occasionally, but should not climb ladders, scaffolds, and ropes; and (7) she should not work at unprotected heights. [#9-2 at 23].

At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hunsaker is capable of performing her past relevant work as a marketing coordinator and executive assistant and that this work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Ms. Hunsaker’s RFC. [#9-2 at 30]. The ALJ thus concluded at step four that because Ms. Hunsaker can still perform her past relevant work, she must be found not disabled. [#9-2 at 30 (citing 20 CFR 494.1520)]. On June 13, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision, thereby rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See [#9-2 at 2]; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993). Plaintiff filed this action on August 15, 2014. See [#1]. The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


I. Standard of Review

In reviewing the Commissioner’s final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The 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 his 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) (internal citation omitted). “Evidence 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) (internal citation omitted). The 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 (internal citation omitted). 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) (internal citation omitted).

II. Social Security Disability Appeal Process

An individual is eligible for DIB benefits under the Act if he is insured, has not attained retirement age, has filed an application for DIB, and is under a disability as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(a)(1). Supplemental Security Income is available to an individual who is financially eligible, files an application for SSI, and is disabled as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. An individual is 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….” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

As discussed above, the Commissioner has developed a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Act. See Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988) (describing the five steps in detail). “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.” Id. at 750. “Step one requires the agency 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). Step two requires the agency to consider whether a claimant has “a medically severe impairment or impairments.” Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142. “An impairment is severe under the applicable regulations if it significantly limits a claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). At step three, the ALJ considers whether a claimant’s medically severe impairments “meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1203 (10th Cir. 2015).

If the claimant’s impairments are not equivalent to a listed impairment, at step four of the evaluation process, the ALJ must determine a claimant’s RFC and compare the RFC to the claimant’s past relevant work. The RFC is what a claimant is still “functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments: the claimant's maximum sustained work capability.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 751. “The claimant bears ...

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