United States District Court, D. Colorado
ORDER AFFIRMING DENIAL OF BENEFITS
Brooke Jackson United States District Judge
matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's
decision denying claimant Shawn William Brinkey's
application for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under Titles II and 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.
appeal is based upon the administrative record and the
parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the
Commissioner, the District Court examines the record and
determines whether it contains substantial evidence to
support the Commissioner's decision and whether the
Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winfrey
v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). 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). Reversal may also be appropriate
if the Commissioner applies an incorrect legal standard or
fails to demonstrate that the correct legal standards have
been followed. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1019.
William Brinkey was born in 1968 and is currently 49 years
old. R. 87. He filed for disability in 2014 at the age of 44,
alleging disability due to autism with an onset date of 2002.
See, e.g., R. 87, 90-91. Mr. Brinkey has also
asserted mental impairments including panic disorder with
agoraphobia, dependent personality disorder, and a learning
disability. ECF No. 13 at 6. Records from his high school
indicate that Mr. Brinkey was in special education classes
and had emotional difficulties, but he was deemed to have
made improvements and was moved to general education classes
by the end of high school. R. 284-307. Mr. Brinkey graduated
high school and went on to work for ten years as a janitor
and painting trains at a toy train factory, where his father
also worked. R. 15, 26, 45-47, 203, 213, 314. When the
factory closed Mr. Brinkey lost his job, and he has been
unemployed since. R. 46-47, 218.
Brinkey filed a claim for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income benefits on February 21, 2014.
R. 21. Mr. Brinkey alleged disability beginning January 1,
2002 with respect to his Title II claim, and beginning
February 21, 2014 for the purposes of his Title XVI claim.
Id.; see also ECF No. 13 at 4. His claims
for disability benefits were denied on September 4, 2014. R.
21. Mr. Brinkey then requested a hearing, which was held
before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Debra J.
Denney on January 21, 2016. R. 14. The ALJ issued a decision
denying benefits on February 25, 2016. R. 14, 18-20, 25-31.
The Appeals Council denied Mr. Brinkey's Request for
Review on January 31, 2017, rendering the ALJ's
determination the final decision of the Commissioner for
purposes of judicial review. R. 1-5. Mr. Brinkey filed a
timely appeal in this Court.
The ALJ's Decision.
issued an unfavorable decision at step two in the SSA's
standard five-step process. First, the ALJ found that Mr.
Brinkey had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
his alleged onset date of January 1, 2002. R. 23. At step
two, the ALJ found that while Mr. Brinkey's alleged
impairments of autism and a learning disability were not
medically determinable, Mr. Brinkey had the medically
determinable impairments of panic disorder with agoraphobia
and dependent personality disorder, but that these
impairments were not severe. R. 24. As a result, the ALJ
concluded that Mr. Brinkey was not disabled, and she did not
proceed to the remaining three steps.
Brinkey alleges that the ALJ erred in three ways when she
concluded at step two that he did not have a severe
impairment. First, he argues that she erred as a matter of
law in failing to find that Mr. Brinkey met his de
minimis burden at step two; second, he argues that the
ALJ impermissibly based her findings on her lay judgment
rather than on the judgment of the medical experts; and
third, he argues that the ALJ failed to base her findings
about the credibility of Mr. Brinkey's and his
mother's testimony on substantial evidence. ECF No. 13 at
5. Each argument will be considered in turn.
Mr. Brinkey's De Minimis Burden.
Brinkey's threshold argument is that he met the de
minimis burden imposed on claimants at step two. At this
step in the SSA's sequential process a claimant is
required to show that he suffers from a severe impairment or
that the combined effect of his impairments is severe. The
claimant must demonstrate that his impairment is of
“such severity that he is not only unable to do his
previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and
work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial
gainful work which exists in the national economy, ”
regardless of whether that work exists near him or whether he
would actually be hired if he applied. 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(2)(A). “The words of this provision limit the
Secretary's authority to grant disability benefits, not
to deny them.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137,
claimant bears the burden at step two of demonstrating that
his impairment(s) is severe because it “significantly
limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c),
416.920(c). “The ability to do basic work activities is
defined as ‘the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do
most jobs.'” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141
(quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b)). To
prevail at step two, a claimant need only make a
“de minimis showing” of medical
severity, meaning that he shows “that his impairments
would have more than a minimal effect on his ability to do
basic work activities.” Williams v. Bowen, 844
F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988). However, this showing
requires demonstrating “more than the mere presence of
a condition or ailment.” Hinkle v. Apfel, 132
F.3d 1349, 1352 (10th Cir. 1997). If the claimant is unable
to make a de minimis showing of severity, “he
is not eligible for disability benefits, and the review
process ends at step two. See Williams, 844 F.2d at
confronted with a claim of mental impairment, the ALJ is
required by regulation to apply a ‘special
technique'” to determine the severity of the mental
impairment. Grotendorst v. Astrue, 370 F. App'x
879, 882 (10th Cir. 2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520a). First, the ALJ must “evaluate [the
claimant's] pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory
findings to determine whether [the claimant has] a medically
determinable mental impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1). An impairment
must be “established by medical evidence consisting of
signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [a
claimant's] statement of symptoms.” Id. at
§§ 404.1508, 416.908.
once the ALJ has found a medically determinable impairment,
she must rate the degree of functional limitation resulting
from the impairment in four broad functional areas: (1)
activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3)
concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of
decompensation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3),
416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ's ratings are then used to
determine the severity of the mental impairments.
Grotendorst, 370 F. App'x at 882. An ALJ's
decision must “incorporate the pertinent findings and
conclusions based on the technique, ” and must show
“the significant history, including examination and
laboratory findings, ...