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Roland v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 16, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Michael Roland appeals the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“SSA”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 31 et seq. I have considered the parties' briefs (ECF Nos. 14-16) and the administrative record (ECF No. 10) (“AR”). Oral argument would not materially assist me in determining this appeal.

         Mr. Roland argues the administrative law judge (ALJ) erred when she determined there were jobs in substantial numbers that he could perform, when she applied the Medical Vocational Guidelines (the Grid rules), and when she evaluated the opinion of his treating physician. As I describe below, I discern no error by the ALJ. I accordingly AFFIRM the decision of SSA.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural History

         In June 2013, Mr. Roland filed an application for disability insurance benefits with SSA, alleging disability beginning November 11, 2009. AR 151-57. After SSA initially denied his claim, AR 80-95, Mr. Roland requested a hearing before an ALJ, AR 99. The hearing took place on April 13, 2015. AR 35-78. On May 14, 2015, the ALJ denied Mr. Roland's claim, concluding he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 14-34. Mr. Roland asked SSA's Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. AR 7-13. On November 9, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, AR 1-6, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of SSA, see Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). On December 16, 2016, Mr. Roland timely filed this appeal. (ECF No. 1.) I have jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Legal Standards

         A. SSA's Five-Step Process for Determining Whether a Claimant Is “Disabled”

         A claimant is “disabled” under Title II of the Social Security Act if he is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). SSA has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         At step one, SSA asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If he is, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. § 404.1520(b). At step two, SSA asks whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”-that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” § 404.1520(c). If he does not, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. If he does, SSA moves on to step three, where it determines whether the claimant's impairment(s) “meet or equal” one of the “listed impairments”-impairments so severe that SSA has determined that a claimant who has them is conclusively disabled without regard to the claimant's age, education, or work experience. § 404.1520(d). If not, SSA goes to step four. At step four, SSA determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)-that is, what he is still able to do despite his impairments, and asks whether the claimant can do any of his “past relevant work” given that RFC. § 404.1520(e). If not, SSA goes to the fifth and final step, where it has the burden of showing that the claimant's RFC allows him to do other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(g). At this step, SSA's Grid rules may mandate a finding of disabled or not disabled without further analysis based on the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2. In contrast with step five, the claimant has “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability at steps one through four.” Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. Standard for Reviewing SSA's Decision

         My review is limited to determining whether SSA applied the correct legal standards and whether its decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Williamson v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1097, 1098 (10th Cir. 2003). With regard to the law, reversal may be appropriate when SSA either applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate reliance on the correct legal standards. See Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). With regard to the evidence, I must “determine whether the findings of fact . . . are based upon substantial evidence, and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom. If they are so supported, they are conclusive upon the reviewing court and may not be disturbed.” Trujillo v. Richardson, 429 F.2d 1149, 1150 (10th Cir. 1970). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). I may not reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis outlined above. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Roland had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of November 11, 2009, and met the insured requirements of the Social Security Act through December, 31, 2014. AR 19. At step two, the ALJ found Mr. Roland had several severe impairments: L3-L4 degenerative disc disease, left hip osteoarthritis and bursitis, right shoulder articular surface tear, left shoulder tendinosis, right thumb CMC joint arthritis, and status post left thumb arthroplasty and revision. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Roland's impairments did not meet or equal any of the ...

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