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Thomas v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 22, 2016

CARA ANN THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

PHILIP A. BRIMMER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint [Docket No. 1] filed by plaintiff Cara Ann Thomas on June 11, 2014. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33.[1] The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. BACKGROUND

On November 4, 2010, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. R. at 12. Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since November 20, 2009. Id. After an initial administrative denial of her claim, plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 26, 2012. Id. On November 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff’s claim. Id. at 23. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia with associated pain and fatigue, interstitial cysts, [2] degenerative changes of the spine, and depression. Id. at 14. The ALJ concluded that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations’ listed impairments, id. at 15, and ruled that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except for the following restrictions and limitations: the claimant should avoid hazardous working conditions, and extremes in temperature. She should be able to stand up a few minutes every hour and stretch out. The claimant could do frequent hand work, but nothing fast paced. She could do occasional overhead and occasional push/pull work. In deference to her mental impairment she is limited to unskilled, low stress work.

Id. at 16-17. Based upon this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, id. at 22, but that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” Id. On April 15, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review of this denial. R. at 1. Thus, 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; ...

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