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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 1, 2016

GREGORY D. SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Commissioner's decision denying claimant Gregory D. Smith's application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Standard of Review.

         This appeal is based upon the administrative record and the parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the role of the District Court is to examine the record and determine whether it “contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] decision and whether the [Commissioner] applied the correct legal standards.” Rickets v. Apfel, 16 F.Supp.2d 1280, 1287 (D. Colo. 1998). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). Regarding the application of law, “reversal may be appropriate when the [Social Security Administration] Commissioner either applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate reliance on the correct legal standards.” Springer v. Astrue, No. 11-cv-02606, 2013 WL 491923, at *5 (D. Colo. Feb. 7, 2013).

         II. Background.

         Mr. Smith was born in 1989 and is now 27 years old. See R. 205. He has suffered from anxiety disorders for his entire life. R. 250. He was enrolled in special education classes in high school and graduated in 2008. R. 237. After graduation he worked short stints as a janitor, as a laborer, and in several other lines of work. R. 222-23, 238.

         Mr. Smith has not been able to hold a job because of the social demands he has faced at work, which trigger his severe social anxiety. R. 77. In 2009, for instance, he was employed as a janitor until he was required to work with a team of people on an intensive cleaning project. R. 85. He quit shortly thereafter. Id. In 2010, Mr. Smith worked for roughly six months at a car wash until his manager insisted that he change positions and deal with customers. R. 86. He got in an argument with his boss and quit. R. 87. Later that year he got a job working on an assembly line and, after a bumpy start, was placed in a role where he would not have to interact with other people while he worked. R. 88. He left that job after about six months, however, when his family moved to Colorado. Id. He has not worked much since this move. R. 219-21.

         A. Procedural History.

         On April 18, 2013 Mr. Smith applied for Disability Insurance Benefits based on his own earnings, Child's Insurance Benefits based on his father's earnings, and Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning April 1, 2009. R. 205, 209, 215. The claims were initially denied on July 2, 2013. R. 145, 149. Mr. Smith requested a hearing, which was held in front of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) John A. Beall on July 29, 2014. R. 66. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on September 2, 2014. R. 48. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Smith's request for review on September 20, 2015, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. R. 1. Mr. Smith filed a timely appeal in this Court.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable opinion after evaluating the evidence according to the Social Security Administration's standard five-step process. R. 51-64. First, he found that Mr. Smith had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of April 1, 2009. R. 53. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Smith had the severe impairments of obesity, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, and developmental learning disorder. R. 54. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Smith did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 54-57.

         The ALJ then found that Mr. Smith retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with nonexertional limitations restricting him to jobs that require: unskilled work; only simple job-related decisionmaking and few workplace changes; at most brief, superficial interactions with the general public for no more than 10% of his workday; at most occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors; no independent travel, travel to unfamiliar locations, or use of public transportation; no concentrated exposure to workplace hazards; no operation of a motor vehicle; and no fast-paced or production-line work. R. 57-62. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Smith had no past relevant work. R. 62. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Smith could perform. R. 62-63. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Smith was not disabled. R. 63-64.

         III. Discussion.

         Mr. Smith contends that the ALJ made numerous errors at step four in the RFC determination and at step five in developing the vocational expert's testimony. Specifically, Mr. Smith argues that the ALJ improperly: (1) adopted some, but not all, of Dr. Madsen's opinions; (2) misused Mr. Smith's Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scores; (3) failed to address all of Dr. Wanstrath's findings; (4) disregarded Ms. Gilbert's and Dr. Abdullah's opinions; (5) gave Mr. Shaffner's opinion about Mr. Smith's RFC no weight; (6) applied the wrong standard of disability; (7) made questionable credibility findings; and (8) failed to ask the vocational expert a hypothetical question that accounted for all of Mr. Smith's symptoms. The Court will consider each argument in turn.

         A. Step Four.

         1. Dr. Madsen.

         Mr. Smith begins his litany of claims by arguing that the ALJ ignored Dr. Madsen's description of Mr. Smith's symptoms and the doctor's conclusion that these symptoms “significantly interfere with his ability to work.” ECF No. 17 at 21-22. As he points out, “[t]he ALJ is not entitled to pick and choose from a medical opinion, using only those parts that are favorable to a finding of nondisability.” Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078, 1083 (10th Cir. 2004). Later on Mr. Smith restates this same basic argument under a different heading, claiming that because the RFC assessment ignores Dr. Madsen's opinion, the ALJ had to explain why the opinion was not adopted. ECF No. 17 at 23 (citing Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (July 2, 1996)). Mr. Smith tenaciously advances this argument again a third time, rewording his claim to assert that the ALJ “failed to discuss significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Id. (quoting Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1010 (10th Cir. 1996)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         These arguments are unavailing. The ALJ adopted Dr. Madsen's findings to the degree that they are consistent with the record as a whole and adequately explained why he did not take certain reports at face value. See R. 57, 61. In particular, the ALJ accounted for Dr. Madsen's medical findings in his step-two conclusion that Mr. Smith suffers from “panic disorder with agoraphobia, ” “social phobia, ” and bipolar disorder. Compare R. 54, with R. 357. The step-four RFC assessment adopts nonexertional limitations on Mr. Smith's travel requirements for his agoraphobia and interactions with the other people for his social phobia. R. 57. However, the ALJ found reports of debilitating manic and depressive periods immaterial due to Mr. Smith's work history after his alleged onset date without interference from these spells. R. 61. Dr. Madsen's conclusion that Mr. Smith's symptoms “significantly interfere with his ability to work” is not entitled to deference because “the ...

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