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Abosedra v. Beryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 29, 2018

NORI S. ABOSEDRA, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          PHILIP A. BRIMMER, United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint [Docket No. 1] filed by plaintiff Nori S. Abosedra on June 8, 2016. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) denying his claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83c.[1] The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 28, 2013, plaintiff applied for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act. R. at 11. Plaintiff alleged that he was disabled beginning January 1, 2010. Id. After an administrative denial, plaintiff appeared at an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 30, 2014. Id. On January 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. Id. at 11-28. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following impairments: lumbar spine disorder, status-post surgeries, chronic pain syndrome, obesity, degenerative disc disease, asthma, and hypertension. Id. at 13. The ALJ found that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations' listed impairments, id. at 15, and found that plaintiff had following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), except as stated otherwise as follows. The claimant is able to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. During an 8-hour workday, the claimant is able to stand and/or walk 30 minutes at a time for a total of 4 hours, and sit 30 minutes at a time for a total of 6 hours. The claimant is able to frequently balance and crouch; and occasionally kneel, stoop, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. He is unable to push, pull, or otherwise operate foot controls with either lower extremity. He is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold. He should avoid prolonged exposure to concentrated levels of pulmonary irritants such as dust, gases, and chemicals. He should avoid unprotected heights, dangerous machinery and excessive vibration.

Id. at 15. Based on this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. Id. at 27-28. On April 14, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1-3. Thus, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court 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 her 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). 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). The district 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 the substantiality test has been met.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, “if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[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 gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). The steps of the evaluation are:

(1) whether the claimant is currently working; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing his past relevant work; and (5) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing any work. Trimiar v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326, 1329 (10th Cir. 1992) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f)). A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a case of disability. However, “[i]f the claimant is not considered disabled at step three, but has satisfied her burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability under steps one, two, and four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience.” See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). While the claimant has the initial burden of proving a disability, “the ALJ has a basic duty of inquiry, to inform himself about facts relevant to his decision and to learn the claimant's own version of those facts.” Hill v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 972, 974 (10th Cir. 1991).

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to appropriately weigh the opinions of plaintiff's treating physicians; (2) failing to discuss all of plaintiff's diagnoses; (3) failing to adequately account for plaintiff's pain; and (4) disregarding portions of the vocational expert's opinion. See Docket No. 13 at 2.

         1. The ALJ's Weighing of the Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to “follow the treating physician rule” and improperly discounted the medical opinions of Jason Cannell, D.O., E. Lee Nelson, M.D., Lief ...

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