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Bryan v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 4, 2016

ROBIN J. BRYAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          CRAIG B. SHAFFER, Magistrate Judge.

         This civil action comes before the court pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-1383c, for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Ms. Bryan's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Social Security Disability Income ("SSDI") benefits.[1] Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated June 25, 2015, 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. # 22). The court has reviewed the Complaint, Defendant's Answer, Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Defendant's Response Brief, the administrative record, the entire case file, and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises.

         I. Procedural History

         Ms. Bryan filed an application for SSDI benefits with a protective filing date of April 2, 2012.[2] ( See Administrative Record ("Tr.") (Doc. # 13) at 166-167, 168-170). She filed an application for SSI benefits on April 10, 2012. (Tr. 156-165, 171-178, 179-181). She claimed that she became disabled on March 11, 2012. (Tr. 168, 171). Her claims were denied on August 20, 2012 and she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 60-61, 62-75, 76-89, 92-95, 97-100, 101). ALJ Patricia E. Hartman held a hearing on August 21, 2013. (Tr. 33-58). Ms. Bryan was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 91, 155, id. ). Ms. Deborah Christensen testified at the hearing as a Vocational Expert ("VE"). (Tr. 53-58, 147). The ALJ issued her written decision on September 16, 2013, concluding that Ms. Bryan was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 17-28). Ms. Bryan sought review of the ALJ's decision on October 16, 2013. (Tr. 15-16). The Appeals Council afforded her an extension of time, received additional evidence and on November 5, 2014 denied her request for review. (Tr. 1-5). Ms. Bryan filed this civil action on January 6, 2015. ( See Doc. # 1). The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Standard of Review

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court must "closely examine the record as a whole to determine whether the... decision is supported by substantial evidence and adheres to applicable legal standards." Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). See also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (court "must determine whether the... decision of nondisability, ... is supported by substantial evidence, i.e., such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court "must affirm... if the decision is supported by substantial evidence." Eggleston v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 1244, 1246 (10th Cir. 1988) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it." Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir.1988). The court "may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." White v. Massanari, 271 F.3d 1256, 1260 (10th Cir. 2001), as amended on denial of reh'g (April 5, 2002). See also Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) ("The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Mounts v. Astrue, No. 11-1172, 479 F.Appx. 860, 867 (10th Cir. May 9, 2012) (court cannot reweigh the evidence and come to a different conclusion than the ALJ) (citation omitted).

         III. Analysis

         An 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Commissioner has developed a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Act. See Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-52 (describing the five steps in detail). "The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis." Neilson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993). "If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary." Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. In the first three steps, the Commissioner determines whether claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset, whether she has severe impairments, and whether the severity of her impairments meets or equals the Listing of Impairments (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). Id. at 750-51.

         If plaintiff's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to step four, where the Commissioner assesses a claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e), and the claimant must establish that he does not retain the RFC to perform his past relevant work. Pipkins v. Colvin, No. CIV-14-136-RAW-KEW, 2015 WL 3618281, at *1, n. 1 (E.D. Okla. June 9, 2015). 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. At step four of the five-step analysis, "a claimant's RFC is measured against the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work to determine whether the claimant can resume such work." Barnes v. Colvin, No. 14-1341, 2015 WL 3775669, at *2 (10th Cir. June 18, 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir.1996) (noting that the step-four analysis includes three phases: (1) "evaluat[ing] a claimant's physical and mental [RFC]"; (2) "determin[ing] the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work"; and (3) ascertaining "whether the claimant has the ability to meet the job demands found in phase two despite the [RFC] found in phase one.")).

         If the claimant's step four burden is met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at step five the existence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy that a claimant can perform given his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Neilson, 992 F.2d at 1120.

... The decision maker first determines the type of work, based on physical exertion (strength) requirements, that the claimant has the RFC to perform. In this context, work existing in the economy is classified as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy. To determine the claimant's "RFC category, " the decision maker assesses a claimant's physical abilities and, consequently, takes into account the claimant's exertional limitations (i.e., limitations in meeting the strength requirements of work)....
If a conclusion of "not disabled" results, this means that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy for which the claimant is still exertionally capable of performing....

Williams, 844 F.2d at 751-52. (citations omitted). The Commissioner can meet the burden of showing that there is other work in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform by the testimony of a VE. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-1099, 1101 (9th Cir.1999). "Disability benefits are denied if the Commissioner shows that the impairment which precluded the performance of past relevant work does not preclude alternative work." Pipkins v. Colvin, 2015 WL 3618281, at *1, n.1.

         Ms. Bryan was 42 years old at the time she applied for disability benefits and thus considered a "younger person." ( See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563, Tr. 31). She graduated from high school. (Tr. 40). She is married and has two adult children. (Tr. 39). She worked as a hotel manager, reservation specialist, and vacation rental specialist, among other things, until March 11, 2012. (Tr. 40-42, 246-258). The ALJ determined that Ms. Bryan: (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of disability, March 11, 2012, (2) had as severe impairments "degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion at level L4-5, irritable bowel syndrome, and headaches, " and (3) did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in Title 20, Chapter III, Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). The ALJ determined that Ms. Bryan had the RFC to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, to sit, stand, and walk six hours each in an eight-hour workday, to push and pull as much as she can lift and carry, to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but not ladders or scaffolds. (Tr. 23). She also determined that Ms. Bryan had the RFC to understand, remember, and carry out instructions at a job with a maximum Specific Vocational Preparation ("SVP") of four. (Tr. 23). The ALJ found that she could not kneel or crawl or work at unprotected heights, with dangerous unprotected machinery, or with vibrating tools. (Tr. 23). The ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE to reach her decision at step five that Ms. Bryan could perform her past relevant work as a ...

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