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Hornbuckle v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 19, 2018

REGINALD AARON HORNBUCKLE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING DENIAL OF PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATION FOR SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

          CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying Plaintiff Reginald Aaron Hornbuckle's application for Social Security income benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-23. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1972, has at least a high school education, and is able to communicate in English. (AR at 33.)[1] Plaintiff had past work experience that required medium to heavy exertion, including work as a hand packager, pallet builder, combination forklift operator/dockworker, and bakery helper, among other positions. (AR at 32-33.) On May 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging that his disability began on January 9, 2014. (AR at 138-39.) Plaintiff claimed his disability was caused by autoimmune disease and interstitial lung disease. (AR at 170.)

         On September 16, 2014, the Social Security Administration Regional Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim. (AR at 83-85.) On October 20, 2014, Plaintiff filed a request for hearing, which the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held on March 22, 2016. See (AR at 20.) On May 20, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision (the “Decision”). (AR at 20-33.) Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council, which the Council denied on May 16, 2017. (AR at 2-4.) Accordingly, the ALJ's Decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         When undergoing the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found at the first step that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 9, 2014, the alleged onset date.” At the second step, the ALJ found that [Plaintiff] “has the following severe impairments: obesity; mild interstitial lung disease/reactive airway disease; right shoulder rotator cuff full thickness tear with retraction and muscle atrophy; grade 2 anterolisthesis, level L4-5; and alcohol abuse/dependence in remission.” (AR at 22.) At the third step, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled since his impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (AR at 24.) In anticipation of the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) as he can lift and carry up to 10 pounds, sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and stand and/or walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. He cannot reach overhead. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but cannot climb ladders and scaffolds or work at unprotected heights or with dangerous unprotected machinery.

(AR at 25.) At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” (AR at 31.) At the fifth step, the ALJ found that “jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” (AR at 33.)

         The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 22, 2014, through [May 20, 2016], (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).” (AR at 33.) Relevant here, when determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause [Plaintiff's] alleged symptoms. However [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence in the record…” and did not prove his disability. (AR at 27.)

         Plaintiff appeals the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff is not disabled. He takes issue with the ALJ's assessments of the medical opinions of treating physician Howard Wolf, M.D. (“Dr. Wolf”) and consulting physician Kimberlee Terry, M.D., and with the ALJ's valuation of his subjective complaints.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether she applied the correct legal standards. Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). Here, Plaintiff does not contest that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards; the sole question is whether the ALJ's Decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         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. Id. at 1262. The district court is “not to reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo” but should “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. The court should determine if the substantiality test has been met, regardless of whether it would have reached a different result based on the record. Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).

         III. AUTHORITY

         “Disability” is defined in the Act as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment…” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act further provides that

“[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are 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 work which exists in the national economy...”

         42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1062 (10th Cir. 2009).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled, which is codified in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4):
(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. …
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in §416.909, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. …
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 to subpart P of part 404 of this chapter and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. …
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. ...
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make ...

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