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Hinds v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 26, 2018

MICHAEL S. HINDS, Plaintiff,


          Nina Y. Wang, United States Magistrate Judge

         This civil action arises under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83(c) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) final decision denying Plaintiff Michael S. Hinds' (“Plaintiff” or “Mr. Hinds”) applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Parties' consent [#12], [1] this civil action was assigned to this Magistrate Judge for a decision on the merits. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73; D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.2. After carefully considering the Parties' briefing [#15; #16; #17], the entire case file, the Administrative Record, and the applicable case law, this court respectfully AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         This case arises from Plaintiff's applications for DIB and SSI filed on or about March 3, 2017. [#11-2 at 14; #11-5 at 173-81]. Mr. Hinds is homeless and has been at least since 2011. See [#11-2 at 41; #17 at 2; #11-5 at 174]. He is 51 years old, single, and has completed two years of college education. See [#11-2 at 48]. In the decade before he alleged that he became disabled, Plaintiff worked various manual labor jobs, including carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and apartment maintenance work. See [#11-2 at 52-54; #11-5 at 182-84]. Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled since December 1, 2015, due to a combination of back pain and cluster headaches, and that he has not worked since 2015. See [#11-2 at 35, 45-46].

         Plaintiff's applications were denied on May 26, 2017. [#11-4 at 90-97]. Plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on May 30, 2017. [Id. at 110]. Administrative Law Judge Cynthia K. Hale (the “ALJ”) convened a hearing on September 18, 2017. [#11-2 at 32].

         At the hearing, Mr. Hinds testified that his back pain is chiefly responsible for his inability to work. See [id. at 48]. He testified that, starting at the end of the year in 2015, his back pain was so severe that he could not move his legs. See [Id. at 46]. Currently, Mr. Hinds maintains that he is in constant pain, that sitting or standing in one position for too long will aggravate the pain, and that to prevent aggravation he must alternate between sitting and standing often within an hour. See [id. at 40-42]. Plaintiff testified that at times when he tries to walk his extremities become numb. [Id. at 36].

         In addition to the back pain, Plaintiff testified that he experiences cluster headaches which prevent him from working. See [id. at 36]. The cluster headaches occur about twice a year and appear to be triggered by seasonal changes in the weather, but they do not have any other environmental triggers such as light or sound. [Id. at 44-45]. At their worst, the cluster headaches leave Mr. Hinds in such pain as to render him incapacitated. See [id. at 36]. Plaintiff alleges that he has tried to work on and off since 2015, but is unable to maintain a job because of his pain. [Id. at 38-41].

         A Vocational Expert (the “VE”) also testified at the hearing. See [Id. at 54-58]. Acknowledging that a person in the following hypothetical would likely be unable to perform Mr. Hinds' past work, the ALJ asked the VE to identify if other types of employment exists which might be available to a such a person who is (1) limited to light work, (2) would need to alternate between standing and sitting every 30 minutes while continuing to work, (3) would only occasionally be able to stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl, and (4) would need to avoid exposure to hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. [Id. at 55]. The VE testified that such a person might find work as an officer helper, router, or mail clerk. See [Id. at 56]. The VE testified that further limitations, such as the need to take one fifteen-minute break a day, a need either to leave work early or have to be absent for more than two days a month, or a need to be off-task for twenty percent of the day would rule out all competitive employment. See [Id.]

         On October 3, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Mr. Hinds not disabled under the Act. See [#11-2 at 25]. Plaintiff requested Appeal Council review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Id. at 1-5]. Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado on January 26, 2018, invoking this court's jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3).


         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); accord Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993) (“[I]f the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” (internal citation omitted)). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because she 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) (internal citation omitted). However, “[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) (internal citation omitted). The court may 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 (internal citation omitted).


         I. The ALJ's Decision

         An individual is eligible for DIB benefits under the Act if she is insured, has not attained retirement age, has filed an application for DIB, and is under a disability as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). SSI is available to an individual who is financially eligible, files an application for SSI, and is disabled as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. An individual is determined to be under a disability only if her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The disabling impairment must last, or be expected to last, for at least 12 consecutive months. See Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214- 15 (2002). Additionally, the claimant must prove she was disabled prior to her date last insured. Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1069.

         The Commissioner has developed a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). See also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988) (describing the five steps in detail). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. Step one determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, disability benefits are denied. Id. Step two considers “whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, ” as governed by the Secretary's severity regulations. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant is unable to show that her impairments would have more than a minimal effect on her ability to do basic work activities, she is not eligible for disability benefits. If, however, the claimant presents medical evidence and makes the de minimis showing of medical severity, the decision maker proceeds to Step 3. Williams, 844 F.2d at 750. Step three “determines whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Secretary acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity, ” pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Id. At step four of the evaluation process, the ALJ must determine a claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), which defines the maximum amount of work the claimant is still “functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments: the claimant's maximum sustained work capability.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 751; see also Id. at 751-52 ...

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