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Morgan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 31, 2018

CHRISTINA LYNN MORGAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          BERNARD M. JONES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Christina Lynn Morgan, seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's termination of her disability insurance benefits (DIB). The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Commissioner has filed the Administrative Record (AR) [Doc. No. 10], and both parties have briefed their positions.[1] For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Procedural Background

         On March 2, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding that Plaintiff had a period of disability, from April 30, 2013, through April 24, 2015, but that as of April 25, 2015, Plaintiff had experienced medical improvement and was not thereafter disabled. AR 15-29. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 1-5. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision constitutes the Commissioner's final decision. See Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011). Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial review.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         “When an ALJ grants benefits to a claimant for a closed period, two decision-making processes occurs.” Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2013). To that end, the ALJ first began with the traditional five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (explaining process); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through June 30, 2018, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 30, 2013, her alleged disability onset date. AR 18. At step two, the ALJ found that between April 30, 2013, and April 24, 2015, Plaintiff suffered from severe: “ulcerative colitis, with chronic diarrhea, status post August 2014 incision and drainage of perirectal abscess, status post December 2014 partial fistulectomy; Crohn's disease, July 2014 onset; obesity; major depressive disorder, severe; bipolar disorder; and panic disorder.” Id. at 19.[2] At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. Id. at 20.

         The ALJ next determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) from April 30, 2013, through April 24, 2015, and concluded that Plaintiff could perform “sedentary work” except that:

[Plaintiff] could only: occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; understand, remember and carry out simple instructions; make only simple work related decisions; deal with only occasional changes in work processes and environment; have no contact with the general public; have only incidental, superficial work-related type contact with co-workers and supervisors, i.e., brief, succinct, cursory, concise communication relevant to the task being performed; would require, at least, one additional unscheduled break daily, at a random and unpredictable time of the workday, of about 15 minute duration; and would be absent from the workplace, on average, one day every 2 weeks.

Id. at 20-21.

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 24. At step five, relying on a vocational expert's (VE) testimony, the ALJ found with that RFC, “there were no jobs that exited in significant numbers . . . that [Plaintiff] could have performed.” Id. at 24. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was disabled from April 30, 2013, through April 24, 2015. Id. at 25.

         Having found Plaintiff disabled, the ALJ next engaged “in the benefits-cessation decision-making process.” Newbold, 718 F.3d at 1262. This is an eight-step evaluation process. See Hayden v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 986, 988 (10th Cir. 2004) (describing the process used in “termination-of-benefit reviews”); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1)-(8). At steps one and two, the ALJ found that from April 30, 2013 to April 24, 2015, Plaintiff had been “under a disability, ” and that after April 25, 2015, Plaintiff's severe impairments had remained the same. AR 25. At step three, the ALJ again found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. Id. At step four, the ALJ determined that “[m]edical improvement occurred as of April 25, 2015, ” and that such improvement was “related to the ability to work.” Id. at 27. Continuing to step six, [3] the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC beginning on April 25, 2015, and held that she could still perform “sedentary work” except that:

[Plaintiff] can only: occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; understand, remember and carry out simple instructions; make only simple work related decisions; deal with only occasional changes in work processes and environment; have no contact with the general public; have only incidental, superficial work-related type contact with co-workers and supervisors, i.e., brief, succinct, cursory, concise communication relevant to the task being performed.

Id.

         At step seven, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff still could not perform any past relevant work, id. at 28, and at step-eight, with the aid of the VE's testimony, the ALJ held that beginning on April 25, 2015, Plaintiff could perform work existing in significant numbers within the national economy. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's disability ended on April 25, 2015. Id. at 29.

         III. Claims Presented for Judicial Review

         Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's finding that she was disabled from April 30, 2013, through April 24, 2015. See Pl.'s Br. at 15. Instead, focusing on the ALJ's termination decision, she alleges: (1) the ALJ failed to shift the burden to the Commissioner during the termination analysis; (2) the Commissioner failed to prove that after April 25, 2015, Plaintiff “no longer suffered from bouts of intermittent diarrhea necessitating unscheduled breaks and from intermittent flare ups of Crohn's disease necessitating periods of missed work;” (3) the ALJ failed to give legitimate ...


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