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Amber P. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah

August 2, 2019

AMBER P, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Magistrate Judge Cecilia M. Romero

         Plaintiff, Amber P (Ms. P or Plaintiff), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner or Defendant) denying her claims for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act). Plaintiff seeks a closed period of disability from November 12, 2014 to June 30, 2016, when she returned to work or substantial gainful activity (Tr. 15).[1] After careful review of the entire record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on July 26, 2019, the undersigned concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and free of harmful legal error and is, therefore, AFFIRMED

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleges disability during the closed period of time due to spinal impairments, migraines, organic mental disorder and major depressive disorder (Tr. 34). A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on March 15, 2017, and the ALJ denied Ms. P's claim on May 9, 2017. The appeals council denied her request for review on April 30, 2018 and this appeal followed.

         In deciding Ms. P's case, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating disability claims (Tr. 55-75). See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step two of the required five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe impairments of lumbar degenerative disc disease and a major depressive disorder (Tr. 17). The ALJ rejected Plaintiff's alleged impairment of migraine headaches. Next, the ALJ found Ms. P's impairments or combination of impairments did not medically equal or meet a listed impairment. Specifically, the ALJ considered listing 1.04 disorders of the spine, and Plaintiff's mental impairments under listing 12.04. The ALJ found that Ms. P had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) with certain limitations. These included inter alia, Ms. P “[c]an lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently”, “[c]an sit up to six hours and can stand and/or walk up to six hours total in an eight-hour workday”, and she could “perform only simple work task, [and] make only simple work-related decisions … in a routine work setting.” (Tr. 19). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a receptionist. And, at step five, the ALJ found Ms. P could perform other jobs in the national economy such as cleaner/housekeeper, ticket taker and cashier II (Tr. 24). Therefore, she was not disabled and not entitled to SSI benefits.

         II. Legal Standard

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. As the Supreme Court recently reiterated, “[o]n judicial review, an ALJ's factual findings . . . ‘shall be conclusive' if supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1153 (2019) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). The threshold for evidentiary sufficiency under the substantial evidence standard is “not high.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla”; it means only “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotations and citations omitted). The court's inquiry “as is usually true in determining the substantiality of evidence, is case-by-case, ” and “defers to the presiding ALJ, who has seen the hearing up close.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1157.

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1184-85 (10th Cir. 2008). It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004). The court's role is not to reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Cowan, 552 F.3d at 1185. Rather, the court must determine whether the Commissioner's final decision is “free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. P raises two primary arguments on appeal asserting the ALJ erred. Before turning to these specific arguments the Court considers the medical evidence in the record and the ALJ's findings in reference to that evidence.

         The Court finds that substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's decision. As to Ms. P's physical limitations due to back pain, the record supported the ALJ's finding that she was able to perform light work. In November 2014, the same month as her application, an examination showed Ms. P had normal spinal motion and walked with a normal gait (Tr. 420). State agency physicians Drs. Taggart and McKay opined that Ms. P could perform light work (Tr. 76-77, 94-95). Medical records demonstrate that, subsequent to her November 2014 application, Ms. P did not complain of increased back pain until March 2015 (Tr. 484). Even at that time, showing some loss of range of motion and a positive straight leg raise test, Plaintiff retained full strength throughout and had no problems with ambulation or rising from a seated position (Tr. 485). An MRI at the time showed a mild protrusion and mild stenosis (Tr. 502). While Plaintiff's back pain increased, she had a successful surgery that resolved the issue in September 2015 (Tr. 550-53). Within one month after surgery, Ms. P reported significant improvement and had full strength in her lower extremities and a stable gait (Tr. 575). Ms. P testified that the surgery resolved her back pain and she was able to return to work. The only reason she did not work until June 2016 was that she had been applying but had not obtained a job until that time (Tr. 44-45).

         Substantial evidence also supported the ALJ's decision as to mental limitations. While Ms. P was treated for depression, the records supported the ALJ's finding that she could still perform simple work. A neuropsychological assessment with Dr. Caine showed that Plaintiff had a low-average to average IQ and was more of a hands on learner, suggesting her career choices should include that consideration (Tr. 520). Dr. Cain's evaluation was consistent with a limitation to simple work. At a visit with Dr. Zimmerman in January 2015, Plaintiff was oriented with normal attention, concentration, fluency, memory, knowledge base, and affect (Tr. 491). The agency investigated further and sent Ms. P for a psychological consultation with Dr. Hardy in February 2015 (Tr. 449-53). On examination, Ms. P was casually dressed with “excellent” grooming and hygiene (Tr. 450). Her short-term memory was adequate and her long-term memory was good (Tr. 450). Plaintiff reported that she did some chores, could cook and follow a simple recipe, and could shop independently (Tr. 452). Dr. Hardy noted that Plaintiff presented with mood dysphoria and anxiety that was directly attributable to her marital situation, but that Plaintiff showed adequate attention and concentration (Tr. 452). Plaintiff admitted that her challenges were primarily due to her separation and possible divorce with her husband (Tr. 451). State agency psychologists Drs. Gill and Kjolby opined that there was no evidence of a sustained 12-month period that indicated an inability to work for psychological reasons (Tr. 73, 92). Physician's assistant Mathis noted in March 2015 that Plaintiff's affect was pleasant with a full range of emotion (Tr. 485). She had no difficulty with concentration or memory (Tr. 485). Her thought processes were coherent and appropriate (Tr. 485). Her judgment, insight, speech, memory, and orientation were all normal (Tr. 485). Medical expert Dr. Farnsworth reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and testified at the hearing that, in her opinion, Plaintiff would be able to perform simple work (Tr. 57-58).

         With this backdrop the Court now turns to Plaintiff's specific arguments of error. Ms. P. argues the ALJ erred in failing to address the supportive opinion of Dr. David Ericksen and failed to assign proper weight to the other treating and examining source opinions. Second, Ms. P. asserts, the ALJ erred in ...

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