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Coldwater v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 30, 2019

RUBY COLDWATER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, 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 (SSA) denied Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from April 15, 2014, Plaintiff’s alleged onset date, through December 31, 2016, the date Plaintiff was last insured (DLI). (TR. 18-32). The ALJ additionally found that Plaintiff had a prior application for disability insurance benefits that was denied on February 12, 2015, and not timely appealed. Finding that the previous determinations were final and binding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s current application would only consider the time period from February 12, 2015, forward. (TR. 18). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (TR. 1-8). 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 last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2016, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 15, 2014, the date of Plaintiff’s alleged onset. (TR. 20). At step two, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: renal cancer status post right partial nephron sparing nephrectomy, essential hypertension, and obesity. (TR. 21). 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. 22).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of sedentary work. (TR. 23). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a grant writer, research and evaluation director, college dean, alumni relations director, and an insurance benefits clerk. (TR. 31). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from April 15, 2014, through December 31, 2016. (TR. 32).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the Commissioner’s final “decision to determine 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). Under the “substantial evidence” standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficient evidence” to support the agency’s factual determinations. Biestek v. Berryhill, __ U.S. __, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (internal citation, alteration, and quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence . . . is more than a mere scintilla . . . and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks 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 RFC is not supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ erred in considering evidence of chronic fatigue and coronary artery disease. (ECF No. 13:3-12, 12-14).

         V. ANALYSIS

         As an initial matter, the Court is mindful of the time period under consideration. As set forth above, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s current application would only consider the time period from February 12, 2015, forward and further determined that Plaintiff’s date last insured was December 31, 2016. Accordingly, Plaintiff needed to establish disability between February 13, 2015 and December 31, 2016 to be entitled to benefits. See TR. 18-19; 20 C.F.R. § 404.957(c)(1) (res judicata precludes ALJ from reconsidering previous determinations); Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (claimant has burden of proving she was totally disabled on or before the date last insured).

         A. Chronic fatigue

          Plaintiff asserts that “the crux of the case” is that the ALJ disregarded Plaintiff’s “chronic fatigue” and ignored medical evidence regarding fatigue. (ECF No. 13:3-12). Plaintiff argues that the RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because it should have included limitations for Plaintiff’s fatigue and edema; specifically, Plaintiff asserts the RFC should have included a daily nap. (ECF No. 13:4, 5, 6, 11).

         1. Dr. Armor

         The ALJ gave “great weight to the treating notes and clinical findings” of Jess Armor, M.D., Plaintiff’s oncologist, but Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ improperly ignored medical evidence from Dr. Armor indicating the need for a daily nap. (TR. 29; ECF No. 13:3-6). In reviewing the medical evidence from Dr. Armor, the ALJ discussed medical evidence dated during the time period relevant to this decision (i.e., between February 13, 2015 and December 31, 2016) as well as prior to this time period and after Plaintiff’s DLI. See TR. 25-27. A claim of disability may be supported by direct evidence or indirect evidence. Medical records during an insured period are direct evidence of a claimant’s condition during that period. Baca v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 5 F.3d 476, 479 (10th Cir. 1993). Medical records that post-date the insured period may constitute indirect ...


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