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Blackmon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 16, 2017

JAMES RUDOLPH BLACKMON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER

          Robert E. Blackburn, United States District Judge

         The matter before me is plaintiff's Complaint [#1], [2] filed November 5, 2015, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. I have jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The matter has been fully briefed, obviating the need for oral argument. I affirm.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges he is disabled as a result of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obstructive pulmonary disease, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, hypertension, headaches, cervical spondylosis, renal insufficiency, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and obesity. After his application for disability insurance benefits was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Following that hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, but the Appeals Council remanded for further development of the record. Thus, a second hearing was held on January 30, 2015. At the time of this hearing, plaintiff was 58 years old. He has a high school education with additional vocational training and past relevant work experience as a journeyman electrician and as a meatcutter. He has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 23, 2011, his alleged date of onset.

         The ALJ found plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to disability insurance benefits. Although the evidence established plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments, the judge concluded the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. Other alleged impairments - including, relevantly, cervical spine disease, headaches, and plaintiff's alleged mental impairments - were found to be non-severe. The ALJ found plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work with certain postural and environmental restrictions. Although this conclusion precluded plaintiff's past relevant work, the ALJ found there were other jobs existing in substantial numbers in the national and local economies he could perform. She therefore found plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal court.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act only if his physical and/or mental impairments preclude him from performing both his previous work and any other “substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). “When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. To be disabling, the claimant's condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

         The Commissioner has established a quinquepartite sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled:

1. The ALJ must first ascertain whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is working is not disabled regardless of the medical findings.
2. The ALJ must then determine whether the claimed impairment is “severe.” A “severe impairment” must significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
3. The ALJ must then determine if the impairment meets or equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations.
4. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform his past work despite any limitations.
5. If the claimant does not have the residual functional capacity to perform his past work, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and substantial work in the economy. This determination is made on the basis of the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f). See also Williams v. Bowen844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294 n.5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is ...


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