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Hart v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 31, 2019

MICHELE HART, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          PHILIP A. BRIMMER, Chief United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint [Docket No. 1] filed by plaintiff Michele Hart on March 6, 2017. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 15, 2014, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging a disability onset date of June 6, 2013. R. at 11. Her claim was denied on April 3, 2014. R. at 77. On August 11, 2015, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) to testify regarding her disability. R. at 30. On November 18, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. R. at 8.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of C6/7 with disc bulge and adjustment disorder with depression and anxiety.” R. at 13. The ALJ concluded that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the regulations' listed impairments, R. at 14, and ruled that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)” with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] is limited to occasional overhead reaching and frequent reaching in all other directions. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. She cannot climb ladders or scaffolds or work at unprotected heights or with dangerous unprotected machinery or in extreme cold. [Plaintiff] can work with a maximum moderate noise level. She cannot work at a production rate pace, but can perform goal oriented work. She can have occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.

R. at 16. Plaintiff was previously employed as a dental assistant. R. at 22. Based on her RFC and in reliance on the testimony given by a vocational expert (“VE”) at the August 2015 hearing, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was incapable of performing her past relevant work but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including courier, laundry worker, electronics worker, hand painter, and surveillance system monitor. R. at 22-23.

         On January 25, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. R. at 1. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.


         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 must 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).


         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).


         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) review each of plaintiff's impairments at Steps 2 and 3 of the sequential evaluation alone and in combination, Docket No. 16 at 10-12; (2) account for the role of pain at Step 4, id. at 15-16; (3) properly weigh the opinions of plaintiff's treating physicians, id. at 7-10; and (4) incorporate all of plaintiff's functional limitations into the analysis at Step 5. Id. at 16-17.

         A. Steps Two and Three

         With respect to the ALJ's analysis at Steps 2 and 3 of the sequential evaluation, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ should have considered whether PTSD was a severe impairment meeting or equaling a listing in the regulations, id. at 10-11, 14; sent plaintiff for a consultative examination to confirm a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, id. at 12; individually addressed certain conditions to determine whether they constituted listing-level ...

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