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Mario J. G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

September 19, 2018

MARIO J. G., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         All parties in this case have consented to Chief Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner conducting all proceedings, including entry of final judgment, with appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.[1] See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. Before the court is plaintiff Mario J. G's (“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”).[2] 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 affirms the decision.


         In September 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI alleging disability beginning in December 2012.[3] Plaintiff alleged disability following a 2005 injury on the basis of post-traumatic concussion syndrome and dementia.[4] Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration.[5] Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on February 9, 2016 before administrative law judge B. Hobbs (the “ALJ”).[6]

         On March 28, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”).[7] The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of headaches, remote traumatic brain injury, mood disorder not otherwise specified, and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified.[8] However, the ALJ found that these severe impairments did not meet or medically equal a Listed impairment.[9] The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations: he could understand, remember, and carry out only short, simple instructions; he could make only simple work-related judgments and decisions; and he could have no more than occasional changes in the routine work setting.[10] Given this RFC, the ALJ found the Plaintiff capable of returning to his past work as a production assembler, a light, unskilled occupation.[11] Therefore, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled.[12]

         In February 2017, the agency's Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, [13]making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.


         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 five-step evaluation process has been established for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iv), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If it is determined that the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), he is not disabled. If, on the other hand, it is determined that the claimant “cannot make an adjustment to other work, ” id., he is disabled and entitled to benefits.


         Plaintiff's opening brief alleges three flaws in the ALJ's decision, which Plaintiff argues merit reversal. First, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of the medical expert, Ron Houston, Ph.D. (“Dr. Houston”) and Liz McGill, Ph.D. (“Dr. Magill”). Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to follow Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p by allegedly failing to include a narrative discussion of the evidence supporting the ALJ's decision. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in her step-four analysis by failing to evaluate the mental and physical demands of Plaintiff's past work. For the reasons that follow, the court concludes that all of Plaintiff's arguments fail.

         I. The ALJ Properly Weighed ...

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