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Miller v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 27, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Craig B. Shaffer United States Magistrate Judge

         This action comes before the court pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”)'s final decision denying Rose Ann Miller's (“Plaintiff”)[2]application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff filed the Complaint on June 9, 2016, and the case was assigned to District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel. Doc. 1. On August 18, 2016, the parties consented to magistrate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626. Doc. 14. On October 21, 2016, the case was reassigned to this Magistrate Judge. Doc. 21. The court has carefully considered the Complaint, Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed September 16, 2016) (Doc. 16), Defendant's Response Brief (filed October 5, 2016) (Doc. 17), Plaintiff's Reply (filed October 19, 2016) (Doc. 20), the entire case file, the Social Security administrative record (“AR, ” doc. 12), and the applicable law. Oral argument would not assist the court. For the following reasons, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         In January 2013, Plaintiff filed an application under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act for DIB and SSI. From October 2000 to January 2013, Plaintiff worked as a global provisioning manager in the telecom industry. AR at 256. She claimed disability based on several conditions. Id. at 255. After the application was initially denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The case was assigned to ALJ Debra Boudreau, who held an evidentiary hearing on February 18, 2015. Id. at 92-118. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. A vocational expert (“VE”), Nora W. Dunne, also testified at the hearing.

         Pursuant to the Commissioner's five-step process described further below, the ALJ found among other things that Plaintiff had a severe impairment (“degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine”) but that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to still perform her former work. AR at 82-86 (decision of March 20, 2015). The ALJ thus found Plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 86. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied her appeal on April 28, 2016. Id. at 1-7.[3] The decision of the ALJ then became the final decision of the Commissioner. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff timely filed this action. Doc. 1. As the “district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, ” this court has jurisdiction. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).


         The Commissioner's regulations define a five-step 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 her 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.

Wilson v. Astrue, No. 10-cv-00675-REB, 2011 WL 97234, at *2 (D. Colo. Jan. 12, 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f)); see also 20 C.F.R § 416.920;[4] Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988). After the third step, the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The claimant has the burden of proof in steps one through four. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).

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) [and 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B)]. “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.” …. 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.

Wilson, 2011 WL 97234, at *1 (quoting Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir.1987)).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision,

[o]ur review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the agency's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.

Lee v. Berryhill, No. 16-5163, - F. App'x -, 2017 WL 2297392, at *1 (10th Cir. May 25, 2017) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted, citing inter alia Knight ex rel. P.K. v. Colvin, 756 F.3d 1171, 1175 (10th Cir. 2014)). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be ...

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