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Nelson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 30, 2018

LISA NELSON, Plaintiff,



         Lisa Nelson (Plaintiff) brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (Commissioner) final decision that she was not “disabled” under the terms of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423(d)(1)(A). United States District Judge Stephen P. Friot has referred the matter to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), (b)(3) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Doc. 15.[1]

         After a careful review of the record (AR), the parties' briefs, and the relevant authority, the undersigned recommends the entry of judgment affirming the Commissioner's final decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Administrative determination.

         A. Disability standard.

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “This twelve-month duration requirement applies to the claimant's inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity, and not just his underlying impairment.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 218-19 (2002)).

         B. Burden of proof.

         Plaintiff “bears the burden of establishing a disability” and of “ma[king] a prima facie showing that [s]he can no longer engage in [her] prior work activity.” Turner v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 326, 328 (10th Cir. 1985). If Plaintiff makes that prima facie showing, the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner to show Plaintiff retains the capacity to perform a different type of work and that such a specific type of job exists in the national economy. Id.

         C. Relevant findings.

         1. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

         The ALJ assigned to Plaintiff's case applied the standard regulatory analysis in order to decide whether Plaintiff was under a disability for the relevant timeframe. AR 15-24; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (describing the five-step process). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff:

(1) was severely impaired by depression, anxiety, personality disorder, history of posttraumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, hypothyroidism, and obesity;
(2) did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment;
(3) had the residual functional capacity[2] (RFC) to perform light work where she would
(a) lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently,
(b) sit for six hours and stand and/or walk for six hours for a total of eight hours in a workday with normal breaks,
(c) occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, climb stairs, and climb ramps,
(d) not climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds,
(e) not work at unprotected heights, or around dangerous moving machinery, open flames, and large bodies of water,
(f) not operate a motor vehicle,
(g) learn her work in thirty days or less or by demonstration, and
(h) have no more than occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, or supervisors;
(4) was unable to perform her past relevant work;
(5) was able to perform jobs existing in the national economy; and so,
(6) had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since April 15, 2013, the date she filed her application for disability insurance benefits.

AR 15-24.

         2. Appeals Council.

         The Social Security Administration's (SSA) Appeals Council found no reason to review that decision, id. at 1-6, “making [it] the Commissioner's final decision for [judicial] review.” Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011).

         II. Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         A. Review standards.

         A court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. A decision is not based on substantial evidence “if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (internal quotation marks omitted). A court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Furthermore, a court “must ‘exercise common sense' in reviewing an ALJ's decision and must not ‘insist on technical perfection.'” Jones v. Colvin, 514 Fed.Appx. 813, 823 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (2012)). The ALJ's decision must be evaluated “based solely on the reasons stated in the decision.” Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078, 1084 (10th Cir. 2004). A “post hoc rationale is improper because it usurps the agency's function of weighing and balancing the evidence in the first instance.” Carpenter v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 1264, 1267 (10th Cir. 2008).

         B. Issues for judicial review.

         Plaintiff, through counsel, specifically identifies a single claim of error in her twenty-six page brief: “Error 1. The physician errors and RFC.” Doc. 23, at 2, 4 (bolding omitted and capitalization altered). In responding to Plaintiff's brief, counsel for the Commissioner noted that while he “[n]ormally . . . attempts to organize briefs either by following the order of issues as raised by Plaintiff, or at least using headings that refer directly to those used by Plaintiff[, i]n this case, both approaches proved to be elusive.” Doc. 24, at 5 n.1. The undersigned agrees with that assessment and, for this report, simply addresses Plaintiff's claims, assertions, representations, and questions in the order presented by her counsel.

         C. ...

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