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Collier v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 29, 2018

PAUL COLLIER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382. Defendant has answered the Complaint and filed the administrative record (hereinafter AR___), and the parties have briefed the issues. The matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for initial proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(B). For the following reasons, it is recommended the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. Administrative History and Final Agency Decision

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on February 9, 2015. AR 206-13. In his application, Plaintiff alleged he became disabled on January 28, 2015, due to conditions affecting feet, ankles, back, and both knees. Id. at 213, 230. The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application on June 26, 2015, see Id. at 120, 121-32, and on reconsideration on September 21, 2015. Id. at 133, 134-46.

         Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at an administrative hearing conducted on July 8, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 61-119. A vocational expert (VE) testified at the hearing. Id. at 114-118. The ALJ issued a decision in which he found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 36-56. Following the agency's well-established sequential evaluation procedure, the ALJ found at the first step that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 28, 2015. Id. at 41. At the second step, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe impairments of “disorders of the spine (cervical spine and lumbar spine with Schmorl's node; mild multilevel degenerative disc disease); osteoarthrosis and allied disorders; other and unspecified arthropathies; lumbago; dysfunction of major joints (left knee mild knee joint space narrowing), and obesity.” Id. At the third step, the ALJ found these impairments were not per se disabling as Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the requirements of a listed impairment. Id. at 43.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work except Plaintiff can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs and must avoid the climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. Id. at 44. Additionally, Plaintiff can frequently stoop and kneel and occasionally crouch and crawl. Id.

         Relying on the VE's testimony as to the ability of a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's work history, age, education, and the determined RFC, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a mail handler. Id. at 55-56. Based on this finding, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from January 28, 2015 through the date of the decision. Id. at 56.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and therefore the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009).

         II. Issue Raised

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions and statements of Plaintiff's treating physicians. Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. # 15) at 3-8. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ did not properly consider the mental health findings contained within the record. Id. at 8. Plaintiff asserts the ALJ did not include all of Plaintiff's limitations into his RFC. Id. at 9-11. Finally, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to address his non-severe impairments. Id. at 11.

         III. General Legal Standards Guiding Judicial Review

         The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is 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); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citations and quotations omitted). The “determination of whether the ALJ's ruling is supported by substantial evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Consequently, [the Court must] remain mindful that evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citations, quotations, and brackets omitted).

         The Social Security Act authorizes payment of benefits to an individual with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. A disability is an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which 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); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see 20 C.F.R. §404.1509 (duration requirement). Both the “impairment” and the “inability” must be expected to last not less than twelve months. Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212 (2002).

         The agency follows a five-step sequential evaluation procedure in resolving the claims of disability applicants. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), (b)-(g). “If 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 [RFC] to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience.” Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005). “The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he is not able to perform other work .” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987).

         IV. Treating Physicians' Opinions

         Plaintiff begins with criticizing the ALJ's statement in her decision that the record does not contain any treating source statements. AR 54. On a related note, the ALJ also stated, “The claimant's treating physicians did not impose any limitations or restrictions on the claimant's ability to perform basi[c] work activities.” Id. at 55. While the ALJ's language in each of these statements is not entirely accurate, the Court is not tasked with ascertaining whether each statement in the decision is correct but instead, whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Hamilton v. Sec'y of ...

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