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Pettyjohn v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 28, 2016

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


Craig B. Shaffer Magistrate Judge

This civil action comes before the court pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, for review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision denying Mr. Pettyjohn’s application for Social Security Disability Income (“SSDI”) benefits.[1]Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated July 14, 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. # 19). 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

Mr. Pettyjohn applied for SSDI benefits on June 27, 2011. (See Administrative Record (“Tr.”) (Doc. # 9) at 52). He claimed that he became disabled on February 1, 2010. (Tr. 139). His claim was denied on October 28, 2011 and he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 52, 74-83). ALJ Charles J. Arnold held a hearing on February 15, 2013. (Tr. 28-51). Mr. Pettyjohn was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 135-136, 30-44). James T. Parker testified at the hearing as a Vocational Expert (“VE”). (Tr. 45-50, 124-126). The ALJ issued his written decision on March 7, 2013, concluding that Mr. Pettyjohn was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 14-25). On April 3, 2013, Mr. Pettyjohn sought review of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 13). The Appeals Council received additional evidence and denied his request for review on July 29, 2014. (Tr. 1-4). Mr. Pettyjohn filed this civil action on September 25, 2014. (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. App’x 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

It is a social security claimant’s burden to prove he is disabled. Bradley v. Colvin, No. 15-6137, 2016 WL 1019214, at * 1 (10th Cir. March 15, 2016) (citation omitted). 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). 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 he has severe impairments, and whether the severity of his impairments meets or equals the Listing of Impairments (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). Id. at 750-51.

If a claimant'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), 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). “A claimant's RFC to do work is what the 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.
. . . The decision maker must then consider all relevant facts to determine whether the claimant’s work capability is further diminished in terms of jobs contraindicated by nonexertional limitations. . . .
Nonexertional limitations may include or stem from sensory impairments; epilepsy; mental impairments, such as the inability to understand, to carry out and remember instructions, and to respond appropriately in a work setting; postural and manipulative disabilities; psychiatric ...

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