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Bower v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 31, 2016

RUSTY L. BOWER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

PHILIP A. BRIMMER United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Rusty Bower’s complaint [Docket No. 1] filed on November 6, 2014. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the “Commissioner”) denying plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83c. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. BACKGROUND

On January 27, 2012, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. R. at 11. Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled beginning October 30, 2010. Id. After an initial administrative denial of his claim, plaintiff appeared at a hearing conducted by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 18, 2013. Id. On July 1, 2013, the ALJ denied plaintiff’s claim. Id. at 21. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of status post pelvic fracture, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, right shoulder adhesive capsulitis, and osteoarthritis. Id. at 13. The ALJ found that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the regulations’ listed impairments, id. at 15, and found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with the following limitations: [plaintiff] can stand and/or walk 2 to 4 hours in an 8-hour day; he can sit for as much as six hours in an 8-hour day; he should be allowed to alternate between sitting and standing as necessary; pushing and pulling with the lower extremities is limited to the exertional range; pushing and pulling with the upper right extremity is limited to 10 to 15 pounds; pushing and pulling with the left upper extremity is limited to the exertional range; [plaintiff] cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and/or crouch; he can never crawl; he is limited to occasional overhead reaching with the right upper extremity, and can frequently reach in all other directions with the right upper extremity; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and to vibration; he should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and unprotected major manufacturing machinery; he can perform work at the skilled level.

Id. at 15-16. Based upon this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff “is capable of performing past relevant work as a logistics specialist, ” which “does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [plaintiff’s RFC.]” Id. at 19. As an alternative finding, the ALJ found, based on the testimony of the VE, that “there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [plaintiff] also can perform.” Id. at 20.

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s denial. R. at 1. Consequently, the ALJ’s decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

Review of the Commissioner’s finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district 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 her 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). Moreover, “[e]vidence 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). The district 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. 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).

B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[a]n 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). The steps of the evaluation are:

(1) whether the claimant is currently working; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing his past relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing any work.

Trimiar v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326, 1329 (10th Cir. 1992) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f)). A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a case of disability. However, “[i]f the claimant is not considered disabled at step three, but has satisfied her burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability under steps one, two, and four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience.” See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987). While the claimant has the initial burden of proving a disability, “the ALJ has a basic duty of inquiry, to inform himself about facts relevant to his decision and to learn the claimant’s own version of those facts.” Hill v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 972, 974 (10th Cir. 1991).

C. The ALJ’s Decision

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to consider plaintiff’s chronic pain disorder, obesity, and lumbar spine impairment in formulating his RFC; (2) failing to evaluate the credibility of plaintiff’s subjective complaints as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; and (3) improperly weighing the medical evidence of record. See generally Docket No. 10. Additionally, plaintiff states that, if the ALJ had properly weighed the medical evidence in determining plaintiff’s RFC, the ...


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