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L.M. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

July 24, 2019

KIM L. M., Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, KIM L. M., seeks judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Social Security disability benefits.[2] In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) & (3), the parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge.

         Standard of Review

         The role of the court in reviewing the decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to a determination of whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the decision contains a sufficient basis to determine that the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards. See Briggs ex rel. Briggs v. Massanari, 248 F.3d 1235, 1237 (10th Cir. 2001); Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017 (10th Cir. 1996); Castellano v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1028 (10th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 993 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991). Even if the court would have reached a different conclusion, if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision stands. Hamilton v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495 (10th Cir. 1992).


         Plaintiff was 53 years old on the alleged date of onset of disability and 60 years old on the date of the denial decision. She has a two year college degree in secretarial science and past relevant work includes a bus driver. [R. 40, 217]. Plaintiff claims to have been unable to work since January 12, 2010 due to pain in back, neck, and shoulders, three knee surgeries, severe anxiety, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and Rheumatoid arthritis. [R. 194].

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of lumbar spine, derangement of the bilateral knees, obesity, depression disorder, and anxiety disorder. [R. 12]. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work except Plaintiff can stand or walk for 4 out of 8 hours, sit for 6 hours. She can occasionally climb, bend, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and can frequently balance and kneel. Plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, and multi-step tasks and can perform some complex tasks. [R. 14]. The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a bus driver as she actually performed it. [R. 17]. The ALJ made alternative findings for step five of the sequential evaluation process that based on the testimony of the vocational expert, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [R. 17-18]. The case was thus decided at step four of the five-step evaluative sequence for determining whether a claimant is disabled with an alternative step five finding. See Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988) (discussing five steps in detail).

         Plaintiff's Allegations

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ: 1) failed to follow the law at Step Four of the sequential evaluation test; 2) the RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence; 3) credibility findings are not supported by substantial evidence; 4) failed to develop and follow vocational expert witness testimony; and 5) the decision in this case was rendered by an Administrative Law Judge whose appointment was invalid at the time he rendered his decision. [Dkt. 13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13, p. 4].


         Step Four Evaluation

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to address the mental and physical demands of her past relevant work as required by Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017 (10th Cir. 1996). [Dkt. 13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13, p. 4-6]. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ made no attempt to perform any of the requirements at phases two and three of the step four analysis. [Dkt. 13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13, p. 6]. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by finding her capable of performing her past relevant work as a bus driver even though that job is listed as medium work in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT 913');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13.463-010). [Dkt. 13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13, p. 4]. Further, Plaintiff worked as a bus driver prior to her four back and knee surgeries which should bring into question her ability to safely transport the children with her pain and limited mobility. [Dkt. 13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13');">13, p. 5].

         The Tenth Circuit has developed a three-phase test for assessing a claimant's ability to perform past relevant work. See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023-25. First, the ALJ must make findings regarding the claimant's residual functional capacity. S e e id. at 1023. Second, the ALJ must assess the mental and physical demands of the claimant's past relevant work. See id. at 1024. Third, the ALJ must make specific findings regarding the plaintiff's ability to perform his past relevant work based on the findings from phases one and two. See id. at 1025.

         In compliance with Winfrey, the ALJ completed phase one when he determined Plaintiff's RFC was limited light work. [R. 14]. Phase two requires the ALJ to obtain “adequate ‘factual information about those work demands which have a bearing on the medically established limitations.'” Id. at 1024 (quoting SSR 82-62). With respect to physical limitations, a determination of the Plaintiff's ability to do past relevant work requires a careful appraisal of (1) the individual's statements as to which past work requirements can no longer be met and the reason(s) for his or her inability to meet those requirements; (2) medical evidence establishing how the impairment limits ability to meet the physical and mental requirements of the work; and (3) in some cases, supplementary or corroborative information from other sources such as employers, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, etc., on the requirements of the work as generally performed in the ...

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