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Christy D.S. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah

March 28, 2019

CHRISTY D.S., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Paul M. Warner Chief Magistrate Judge



         Before the court is an appeal filed by Plaintiff Christy D.S. (“Plaintiff”) seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The court has reviewed the written memoranda submitted by the parties and concludes 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 affirms the decision.


         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB in July 2014, alleging disability beginning in December 2011, due to both physical and mental impairments.[1] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration.[2] After an administrative hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), [3] the ALJ issued his decision against Plaintiff on January 26, 2017.[4] In his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity and had “severe” impairments that did not meet or medically equal a per se disabling impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (“Listing”).[5] The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations:

1. Plaintiff could sit, stand, or walk six hours in an eight hour day;
2. Plaintiff could lift and carry twenty (20) pounds occasionally and ten (10) pounds frequently;
3. Plaintiff could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and climb ramps or stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and occasionally crouch and crawl;
4. Plaintiff could occasionally reach overhead but frequently reach in all other directions with her left arm and frequently reach in all directions with her right arm;
5. Plaintiff could frequently handle, finger, and feel bilaterally; and,
6. Plaintiff was limited to understanding, remembering, carrying out, and making judgments on short and simple job instructions.[6]

         Given this RFC and relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.[7] Therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.[8]


         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 (citation omitted) (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172). 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) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)). “[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) (quoting Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984)).

         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)-(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). 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 [the] 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 Listing], 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[s] 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); 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; see also 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 (quoting Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987)); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If it is determined that the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work, ” then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If, on the other hand, it is determined that the claimant “cannot make an adjustment to other work, ” she is disabled and entitled to benefits. Id.


         Plaintiff's opening brief challenges the ALJ's finding that her impairments did not meet a Listing, [9] and the ALJ's RFC finding.[10] The court notes that Plaintiff's opening brief is devoid of any citation to the record. This has made Plaintiff's arguments difficult for the court to evaluate. “[I]t is the appellant's responsibility to tie the salient facts, supported by specific record citation, to [her] legal contentions.” Streeter v. Berryhill, 724 Fed.Appx. 632, 635 (10th Cir. 2018) (alterations in original) (quoting United States v. Rodriguez-Aguirre, 108 F.3d 1228, 1237 n.8 (10th Cir. 1997)). Like the appellants in Streeter and Parker v. Colvin, 676 Fed.Appx. 798 (10th Cir. 2017), Plaintiff “merely recites the relevant standards and recounts the ALJ's decision, without pinpointing specific errors.” Parker, 676 Fed.Appx. at 800. Where Plaintiff does allege errors, they are generally conclusory and lack analysis.[11] However, because Plaintiff has cited to some authorities, and referred to the ALJ's decision, out of an abundance of caution the court will proceed with its analysis of the ALJ's decision under the standard described above.

         I. The ALJ Reasonably Found Plaintiff Did Not Meet or Equal a Listing

         Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's analysis at step three of the sequential evaluation process. At step three, the ALJ determines whether a claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets a per se disabling listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 404.1525. In order to meet a Listing, a claimant must show that her impairments meet “all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). The claimant must also prove that her impairments meet the listing for a continuous period of at least twelve (12) months. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(c)(4). Here, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not meet the Listing 1.02(B) or 1.04.[12] The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's osteopenia and her history of exercise-induced syncopal episodes did not meet a Listing, and that Plaintiff did not meet a mental impairment Listing.[13] Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings regarding Listing 1.02(B) and his analysis regarding her syncopal episodes and mental impairment.

         a. Listing 1.02(B)

         Listing 102 requires a major dysfunction of “one major peripheral joint in each upper extremity (i.e., shoulder, elbow, or wrist-hand), resulting in inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively, as defined in 1.00B2c.” 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 1.02(B). Section 1.00 defines the inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively as “an extreme loss of function of both upper extremities; i.e., an impairment(s) that interferes very seriously with the individual's ability to independently initiate, sustain, or complete activities.” Id. § 1.00(B)(2)(c).

         Plaintiff argues that the consultative examiner (“CE”), Tyler Hedin, M.D. (“Dr. Hedin”), “found that [Plaintiff] would have difficulty lifting heavy . . . objects, ” and that “[t]here was absolutely no discussion about ‘ability to perform fine and gross motor movements'” in D r. Hedin's report.[14] Plaintiff also complains that ...

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