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Christensen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah, Northern Division

March 6, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Robert J. Shelby Chief District Judge



         District Judge Robert J. Shelby referred this case to Chief Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[2] Before the court is Kristine A. Christensen's (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Christensen”) appeal of the Commissioner's final decision determining that Plaintiff was not entitled to Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”).[3] After careful consideration of the written briefs and the complete record, the court has determined that oral argument is not necessary in this case. After careful review of the administrative record, the parties' briefs, and the relevant law, the court finds no reversible legal error and concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. The court therefore recommends that the decision be affirmed.


         Ms. Christensen, an insured under the Act, was 44 years old when she filed her application for SSI on or about July 30, 2012.[4] Ms. Christensen completed her GED and has past relevant work experience as a telemarketer, gas station attendant, laborer, manufacturer, and sanitizer.[5] Ms. Christensen alleged disability beginning on July 30, 2012, due to multiple sclerosis (“MS”).[6] At the administrative hearing in July 2014, [7] Ms. Christensen testified that she also had problems sleeping and had headaches that were “constant” for the year prior, [8] and that she had experienced hip pain[9] and hand cramping for six years.[10] The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the July 2014 hearing.[11]

         The Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) denied Plaintiff's application.[12] Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council.[13] The Appeals Council denied Ms. Christensen's request for review.[14]Accordingly, the ALJ's decision is the final disposition of the Commissioner and is ripe for judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating disability claims, discussed in more detail below. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 30, 2012, the date of Ms. Christensen's application.[15] At step two, the ALJ recognized that Plaintiff the severe impairments of MS; “depressive disorder, not otherwise specified; mixed anxiety disorder with panic attacks; and cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified.”[16] At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not meet a listing.[17] In assessing Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, except for the following limitations.[18] The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff can:

1. occasionally lift 10 pounds and frequently lift less than 10 pounds;

2. stand 2 out of 8 hours;

3. walk 2 of 8 hours;
4. sit 6 of 8 hours;
5. occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds;
6. tolerate no more than occasional exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold;
7. only make simple work-related judgments and decisions due to pain, side effects of medications and mental impairments;
8. understand, remember and carry out only short and simple instructions;
9. deal with only occasional changes in a routine work setting; and,
10. do no fast-paced work, but can do goal-oriented work.[19]

         The ALJ concluded at step four that Ms. Christensen is unable to perform any past relevant work.[20] At step five, based on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform other work that exists in in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore was not disabled as defined in the Act.[21]


         The court “review[s] the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). The Commissioner's findings, “if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “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, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quotations and citation omitted). In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the court cannot “reweigh the evidence” or “substitute” its judgment for that of the ALJ. Madrid v. Barnhart, 447 F.3d 788, 790 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotations and citations omitted). “[F]ailure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed [are] grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotations and citation omitted).

         A f i v e -step evaluation process has been established for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750- 51 (10th Cir. 1988) (discussing the five step process). If a determination can be made at any one of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, the subsequent steps need not be analyzed. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The five step sequential disability determination is as follows:

1. If the claimant is performing substantial gainful work she is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, her impairment(s) must be severe before she can be found to be disabled.
3. If claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a severe impairment(s) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and her impairment(s) meets or medically equals a listed impairment contained in [20 C.F.R. § 404, Part P, Appendix 1], the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
4. If the claimant's impairment(s) does not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, she is not disabled.
5. Even if the claimant's impairment(s) prevent her from performing her past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates her [RFC] and vocational factors, she is not disabled.

Martin v. Barnhart, 470 F.Supp.2d 1324, 1326-27 (D. Utah 2006); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51. The claimant bears the burden of proof beginning with step one and ending with step four. See Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51; Henrie v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 13 F.3d 359, 360 (10th Cir. 1993). At step five, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to establish “whether the claimant has the [RFC] . . .to perform other work in the national economy in view of his [or her] age, education, and work experience.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 751 (quotations and citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         Plaintiff's opening brief alleges three flaws in the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record.[22] Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ abused his discretion by failing to include testimony and evidence from the hearing in fashioning the RFC.[23] Finally, Plaintiff argues that the physical and mental limitations set forth in the RFC were inconsistent with the demands of the jobs identified by the vocational expert.[24]

         The court has carefully reviewed the administrative record and finds that Plaintiff has failed to provide the court grounds on which to overturn the decision of the Commissioner. The court finds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and the ALJ's decision is supported by the substantial evidence.

         I. The ALJ Adequately Developed the Record

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record as to recently developed impairments to which Ms. Christensen testified at the hearing, including migraine headaches, hip pain, hand pain, and agoraphobia.[25] Plaintiff contends that “there was insufficient inquiry regarding the nature of such new impairments, ” and “[h]ad the [ALJ] made a proper inquiry into and assessment of all of Ms. Christensen's impairments . . . and factored them into the RFC, ” the ALJ would have concluded that Ms. Christensen was unable to perform any work.[26] The record shows that the ALJ explicitly considered these impairments, but found them unsupported by the record.[27] The ALJ ...

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