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Berzins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 21, 2019

ANDIS DAVIS BERZINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Kristen L. Mix, United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court[1] on the Social Security Administrative Record [#12], [2] filed January 12, 2018, in support of Plaintiff's Complaint [#2] seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. On February 21, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#18] (the “Brief”). Defendant filed a Response [#19] in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#22]. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). The Court has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on May 1, 2013. Tr. 18.[3] On July 17, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II. Tr. 18. On May 29, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 26.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2016, and that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) from his alleged onset date of May 1, 2013. Tr. 20. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from three severe impairments: (1) depressive disorder, (2) anxiety disorder, and (3) chronic hip pain. Tr. 20. However, the ALJ also found that these impairments, individually or in combination, do not meet or medically equal “the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).” Tr. 20. The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at a light exertional level with the following limitations:

[H]e cannot climb ladders or stairs; he can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and he cannot perform work that involves contact with the general public or more than occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors.

Tr. 21. Based on the RFC and the testimony of an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as a software analyst. Tr. 71-72. He therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 25-26. The ALJ's decision has become the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         II. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         Pursuant to the Act:

[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a “disability.” A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, “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.”

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a claimant is disabled if he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying disabling impairment must be demonstrated by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic” findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).

         “When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act. To be disabling, the claimant's condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

         The Court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner by examining the administrative record and determining “whether the [ALJ's] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However, the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Harper v. Colvin, 528 Fed.Appx. 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court “may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if the Court may have “made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).

         A. Legal Standard

         The Social Security Administration uses a five-step framework to determine whether a claimant meets the necessary conditions to receive Social Security benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and if the claimant fails at any of these steps, consideration of any subsequent step or steps is unnecessary. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (“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.”). The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether a claimant is “presently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quoting Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1142 (10th Cir. 2004)). If not, the ALJ considers at step two whether a claimant has “a medically severe impairment or impairments.” Id. “An impairment is severe under the applicable regulations if it significantly limits a claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Id. 1052 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). Next, at step three, the ALJ considers whether a claimant's medically severe impairments are equivalent to a condition “listed in the appendix of the relevant disability regulation, ” i.e., the “Listings.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quoting Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142). “If a claimant's impairments are not equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ must consider, at step four, whether a claimant's impairments prevent [him or her] from performing [his or her] past relevant work.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citing Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142). “Even if a claimant is so impaired, the agency considers, at step five, whether [he or she] possesses the sufficient [RFC] to perform other work in the national economy.” Id.

         B. Substantial Evidence

         An ALJ must consider all evidence and explain why he or she finds a claimant not disabled. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). However, the ALJ need not specifically “reference everything in the administrative record.” Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1148. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1140 (internal quotation marks omitted). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). A decision by the ALJ is not based on substantial evidence “if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record . . . .” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In other words, the Court's determination of whether the ALJ has supported his or her ruling with substantial evidence “must be based upon the record taken as a whole.” Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994). Further, evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In addition, “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).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in two primary ways. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly found that Plaintiff's anxiety did not meet Listing 12.06. Brief [#18] at 3. Second, Plaintiff argues that the RFC formulated by the ALJ is not supported by substantial evidence of the record. Id.

         A. Step Three: Listing 12.06

         “At the third step, we [will] consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix I of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled.” Gallegos v. Colvin, 646 Fed.Appx. 613, 615 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii)). In other words, “[s]tep three asks whether any medically severe impairment, alone or in combination with other impairments, is equivalent to any of a number of listed impairments so severe as to preclude substantial gainful employment.” Gallegos, 646 Fed.Appx. at 615-616 (quoting Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         “To meet Listing 12.06 for anxiety related disorders, the claimant must establish that he meets the criteria of subsections A and B, or A and C.” Gallegos, 646 Fed.Appx. at 616 (citing 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpt. P, App. I, § 12.06). Plaintiff asserts that he met the criteria of subsections A and B, see Brief [#18] at 12, and thus the Court need not examine subsection C here. See 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpt. P, App. I, § 12.06. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the evidence supports the following findings sufficient to meet the requirements of Listing 12.06:

A. Medically documented findings of at least one of the following:
1. Generalized persistent anxiety accompanied by three out of four of the ...

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