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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 24, 2018

JENNIFER JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR. ___). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 15-27). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2013, her alleged onset date. (TR. 17). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Johnson had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; narcolepsy; seizures; status post hip disorder; status post thyroidectomy; chronic pain syndrome; major depressive disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and anxiety disorder. (TR. 17). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 19).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Johnson retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant: can occasionally stoop, kneel, and crawl; can understand and remember simple instructions; and perform work related to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.

(TR. 21). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (TR. 25). As a result, the ALJ made additional findings at step five. There, the ALJ presented several limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 53-54). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 54). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Johnson was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 26-27).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final “decision to determin[e] whether the 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). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         IV. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in evaluating: (1) the RFC, (2) a consultative examiners' opinion, and (3) Plaintiff's subjective allegations.

         V. NO ERROR IN THE RFC

         As stated, the ALJ determined Ms. Johnson had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; narcolepsy; seizures; status post hip disorder; status post thyroidectomy; chronic pain syndrome; major depressive disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and anxiety disorder. (TR. 17). Ms. Johnson alleges that the ALJ failed to include limitations in the RFC stemming from these severe impairments, along with limitations related to non-severe impairments involving constipation, migraine headaches, and a Vitamin D deficiency. (ECF No. 15:6-27). The Court disagrees.

         A. ALJ's Duty in Assessing the RFC

         Once a claimant's impairments are deemed severe at step two, the ALJ has a duty to discuss their impact throughout the remainder of the disability determination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2). Indeed, in formulating the RFC, the ALJ must discuss the combined effect of al the claimant's medically determinable impairments, both severe and nonsevere. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1065 (10th Cir. 2013). However, “a finding that an impairment is severe at step two is not determinative of the claimant's RFC.” Johnson v. Berryhill, 679 Fed.Appx. 682, 687 (10th Cir. 2017).

         “The question is not whether the RFC recounts or lists the ‘severe' impairments found at step two, but whether the RFC accounts for the work-related limitations that flow from those impairments.” Cavalier v. Colvin, 13-CV-651-FHM, 2014 WL 7408430, at *2 (N.D. Okla. Dec. 30, 2014). In assessing an individual's RFC, the ALJ must consider the limitations and restrictions imposed by a claimant's severe impairments and express any limitations in terms of specific, work-related activities he or she is able to perform. See SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *6-7 (July 2, 1996).

         B. Degenerative Disc Disease

         Plaintiff argues that her degenerative disc disease caused her chronic pain and difficulty sitting and standing “for any prolonged period of time.” (ECF No. 15:7). According to Ms. Johnson “it does not support the light RFC and the ability to stand and walk most of the day” and “at a minimum, a sit-stand option should have been considered by the ALJ.” (ECF No. 15:7).

         Plaintiff's argument lacks merit because she has failed to meet her burden of proof that her degenerative disc disease would interfere with her ability to perform light work or that she would require a sit-stand option. “The burden to prove disability in a social security case is on the claimant, and to meet this burden, the claimant must furnish medical and other evidence of the existence of the disability.” Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1271 (10th Cir. 2004); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(c) (explaining, in context of DIB, that claimant bears responsibility for identifying or submitting evidence that relates to finding of disability).

         In support of her argument regarding her difficulty sitting and standing and the need for a “sit-stand” option, Plaintiff cites: (1) her own testimony and (2) a single medical record from Dr. Bruce Mackey. (ECF No. 15:7).

         At the hearing, Ms. Johnson stated that her chronic pain was aggravated by sitting or standing “for any prolonged period of time.” (TR. 37). The ALJ considered the testimony and then discounted it, stating “[Ms. Johnson's] . . . chronic pain and back impairments, while painful, [were] not as functionally limiting as alleged.” (TR. 22). In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ cited “little evidence of chronic debilitating pain, such as repeated episodes of muscle atrophy, spasms, or reduced range of motion.” (TR. 22).

         Ms. Johnson also cites a medical record from Dr. Mackey, wherein the physician diagnosed “chronic pain syndrome with intervertebral disc disorder with myelopathy, lumbar region.” But “[t]he mere diagnosis of a condition does not establish its severity or any resulting work limitations.” Paulsen v. Colvin, 665 Fed.Appx. 660, 668 (10th Cir. 2016).

         Ms. Johnson does not specifically challenge the ALJ's treatment of her testimony, but only argues that she could not perform light work and the RFC should have included a sit-stand option. (ECF No. 15:7). But Plaintiff's testimony, which the ALJ had discounted, and a diagnosis, without more, are insufficient bases on which to disturb the RFC determination. See McNally v. Astrue, 241 F. App'x. 515, 518 (10th Cir. 2007) (“with regard to [her severe impairments], the claimant has shown no error by the ALJ because she does not . . . discuss any evidence that would support the inclusion of any limitations.”) (citation omitted). Accordingly, the Court rejects Plaintiff's argument that the RFC should have included additional limitations related to her degenerative disc disease.

         C. Narcolepsy, Status Post Thyroidectomy, and Vitamin D Deficiency

         Plaintiff states that her narcolepsy causes her to “fall asleep” and she suffers fatigue owing to her narcolepsy, her thyroidectomy, and a Vitamin D deficiency. (ECF No. 15:7-10, 14-16). As a result, Plaintiff alleges error through the ALJ's failure to account for these conditions in the RFC or explain the lack of related limitations. (ECF No. 15:7-10, 14-16).

         In support of her argument that “sleep limitations” ought to have been included in the RFC, Plaintiff cites: (1) her own testimony, (2) a Google search, and (3) a scholarly article. (ECF No. 15:7-10, 11-12).

         At the hearing, Ms. Johnson stated:

• she had “severe fatigue, ”
• she could “fall asleep even sitting there driving, ”
• her thyroid condition and medication made her ...

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