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Amoto v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 28, 2017



          Craig B. Shaffer United States Magistrate Judge

         This action comes before the court pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Lawrence Michael Amoto's[1] (“Claimant”) application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). On January 14, 2016, the parties consented to the magistrate judge's jurisdiction to “conduct any and all further proceedings in this case, including the trial, and [to] order the entry of final judgment.” Doc. 11. Accordingly, the case was referred to this court on March 22, 2016. Doc. 20. The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed October 28, 2015) (Doc. 1), Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed February 15, 2016) (Doc. 15), Defendant's Response Brief (filed March 2, 2016) (Doc. 16), Plaintiff's Reply (filed March 21, 2016) (Doc. 19), the entire case file, the administrative record, and the applicable law. For the following reasons, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         In January 2013, Claimant filed an application for disability benefits and alleged that he became disabled in November 2010. (See Social Security Administrative Record (hereinafter “AR”) at 14, 30, 107-113). Mr. Amoto alleged that his ability to work was limited by Hepatitis C, chronic fatigue, osteoarthritis in hands, metatarsalgia, tennis elbow, low back pain, hip pain, and high blood pressure. See Id. at 132. Mr. Amoto was born on February 2, 1952, and was 58 years old on the date of his alleged disability onset. Id. at 107. He completed the 12th grade and had previous work experience as a carpenter and a construction flagger. Id. at 133. After his initial application was denied, Claimant requested a hearing, which was held on August 8, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). See Id. at 27-45, 70-77.

         Claimant was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified that due to his chronic fatigue, he had difficultly lifting objects and that he could only walk one city block before needing to stop and rest. Id. at 31. He also testified that although he used to be his brother's live-in caretaker, his ailments made it difficult to take care of even himself. Id. at 32-33. He stated that he did not do any yard work, did very little cooking, rarely drove, performed few house chores, and often had to take naps during the middle of the day. Id. at 32-35, 41. He also testified that one of the side effects of his medication was depression. Id. at 36. According to Mr. Amoto, he was also easily irritated, had memory and concentration problems, and had difficulty being out in public due to his confusion. Id. 36-37.

         A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified at the hearing. Id. at 43-45. The ALJ asked the VE to assume hypothetically that an individual of Claimant's age - with the same education and past work experience as Claimant - had the following limitations: (1) perform work at a light exertional level; (2) occasional bending, squatting, kneeling; and (3) no complex tasks, defined as SVP: 2 or less. Id. at 44.

         Based on these limitations, the VE testified that Mr. Amoto could perform his past relevant work as a flagger. Id. The ALJ then posed a second hypothetical and asked the VE to assume the same non-exertional limitations, but to limit the exertional to sedentary. Id. The VE testified that the individual would not be able to perform any of the past relevant work. Id.

         Claimant's counsel then asked the VE to assume that the individual would be absent from work more than two times per month. Id. The VE testified that there would be no competitive employment for such an individual. Id. at 45. Counsel also asked whether all competitive work would be precluded if the individual would regularly be off task more than 20 percent of an eight-hour work day. Id. The VE agreed that all work would be eliminated. Id.

         On August 22, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision denying benefits. Id. at 11-25. The ALJ's opinion followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[2] At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since November 15, 2010. Id. at 16. At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: (1) lumbar degenerative disc disease; (2) hepatitis C; (3) coronary artery disease; (4) depression; and (5) anxiety. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Amoto did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 17-18.

         The ALJ then assessed the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant can only occasionally bend, squat and kneel. The claimant can only occasionally deal with the general public and requires work that does not involve complex tasks (i.e., work with an SVP of 2 or less).

Id. at 18. In fashioning Claimant's RFC, the ALJ discussed much of the medical evidence in Claimant's records. The ALJ concluded that although Mr. Amoto's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his alleged symptoms, his statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely credible. Id.

         The ALJ specifically noted that Claimant's medical records were not consistent with his allegations of total disability. Id. In particular, the ALJ noted the lack of medical records to support Mr. Amoto's claims. For example, although he claimed disability beginning in November 2010, the record contained no medical evidence prior to December 2011. Id. at 18. Further - following a solitary podiatry appointment in December 2011 - there were no medical appointments until the last half of 2012. Id. at 18-19. In addition, the ALJ credited the opinion of Dr. Brett L. Barney, M.D., a consultative examiner who examined Claimant and prepared a report. Id. at 19, 254-62. Dr. Barney concluded that Mr. Amoto had the capacity to work at a medium exertional level; however, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was somewhat more limited. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was able to perform his past relevant work as a construction flagger. Id. at 20. Consequently, the ALJ found that Mr. Amoto did not meet the definition of “disabled” for purposes of the Social Security Act. Id. at 21. Accordingly, his application for disability benefits was denied.

         Following the ALJ's decision, Mr. Amoto requested review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 7-10. The Appeals Council denied his request on August 28, 2015. Id. at 1-6. The decision of the ALJ then became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Mr. Amoto filed this action on October 28, 2015. Doc. 1. The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); Angel v. Barnhart,329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because it 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 his 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) (internal citation omitted). 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) (internal citation omitted). The 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 ...

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