United States District Court, D. Colorado
GREGORY D. SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Brooke Jackson United States District Judge.
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.
Standard of Review.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The ALJ's Decision.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 ...