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Jolley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 6, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing (doc. 19) and accompanying briefing (docs. 25, 26). For the reasons set forth below, the motion shall be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an initial application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act on March 29, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 173. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of June 23, 2009, when he became unable to work due to a torn rotator cuff, mood swings, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including the symptoms of nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. AR at 173, 177. Following the denial of Plaintiff's application on both initial and reconsideration, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on January 12, 2015. AR at 88-90, 84-87, 49-83. On May 4, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. AR at 30-32.

         Plaintiff appealed the denial of his application to the Appeals Council, which declined review on November 4, 2015. AR at 22-28. Plaintiff filed in this Court on December 10, 2015, seeking review of the ALJ's decision. Doc. 1. On May 24, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing. Doc. 19.

         II. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a court may review a final decision of the Commissioner only to determine whether it (1) is supported by “substantial evidence” and (2) is grounded in an evaluation of the evidence that comports with the proper legal standards. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). “In reviewing the ALJ's decision, we neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency.” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotations omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800. While the ALJ is required to consider all of the evidence of record, she “is not required to discuss every piece of evidence. Rather, in addition to discussing the evidence supporting [her] decision, the ALJ also must discuss the uncontroverted evidence [she] chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence [she] rejects.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996) (internal citations omitted). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         III. Parties' Positions

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ committed legal error by failing to evaluate the opinion evidence of Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) Christopher H. King. Doc. 19 at 9-10. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ was required to consider the opinion evidence of health care providers such as Mr. King in order to determine the severity of Plaintiff's impairments.[1] Id.; see also Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939 (S.S.A. Aug. 9, 2006). Defendant argues that (1) the ALJ properly considered Mr. King's opinion in reaching her decision that Plaintiff is not disabled; (2) nothing in Mr. King's opinion is inconsistent with the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); (3) even if the ALJ erroneously failed to consider Mr. King's opinion, Plaintiff has not shown that prejudice resulted; and (4) Plaintiff is requesting that the Court reweigh the evidence, which is impermissible. Doc. 25 at 8-14. The Court agrees that Mr. King's opinion does not conflict with the RFC, and that the record demonstrates the ALJ considered all of the evidence in reaching her decision that Plaintiff is not disabled. There is thus no reversible error.

         IV. ALJ Evaluation

         A. Legal Standard

         For purposes of Social Security benefits, an individual is disabled when he or she is unable “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). To determine whether a person satisfies these criteria, the SSA has developed a five-step test. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the Commissioner finds an individual disabled at any step, the next step is not taken. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At the first four steps of the analysis, the claimant has the burden to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) he has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and that either (3) his impairments meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         Step four of this analysis consists of three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in light of “all of the relevant medical and other evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). A claimant's RFC is “the most [he or she] can still do despite [physical and mental] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past work. “To make the necessary findings, the ALJ must obtain adequate ‘factual information about those work demands which have a bearing on the medically established limitations.'” Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1024 (quoting Social Security Ruling 82-62 (1982)). Third, the ALJ determines whether, in light of the RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. Id. at 1023, 1025.

         If the ALJ concludes that the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, he or she proceeds to step five of the evaluation process. At step five, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         On May 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. AR at 33-43. In denying Plaintiff's application, the ALJ applied the required five-step sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of June 23, 2009 through his date last insured of September 30, 2012. AR at 35. At step two, the ALJ determined that through his date last insured, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild degenerative joint disease of the left knee; chronic left rotator cuff tear, status post- surgical repair with arthritic changes; PTSD; depressive disorder; and alcohol abuse. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that through the date last insured, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. AR at 36.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the RFC “to perform less than the full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c).” AR at 37. Specifically, she found that Plaintiff was limited to: lifting and/or carrying fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; standing, walking, or sitting for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks; pushing and/or pulling fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; only occasional overhead reaching with the non-dominant left upper extremity; only occasionally climbing ladders and scaffolds; understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions; maintaining attention and concentration to perform simple tasks for two hours at a time without requiring redirection to task; only having ...

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