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Christie S. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

August 26, 2019

CHRISTIE S., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          Robert J. Shelby Chief District Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Cecilia M. Romero United States District Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is referred to the undersigned in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) for a Report and Recommendation on all dispositive matters (ECF 14; ECF 18). Plaintiff, Christie S., pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. After careful review of the entire record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on August 14, 2019, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for benefits in July 2015, alleging disability beginning August 20, 2014, due to stage one lymphoma cancer, back problems, depression, and anxiety, among other conditions (ECF 10, Certified Administrative Transcript (Tr.) 267, 372). Plaintiff graduated from high school and attended some college, and she had past relevant work as an actor and a management trainee (Tr. 41, 86-89). In early 2015, Plaintiff began working part-time as an assistant manager at a movie theater, and the following year she also began working part-time as a front desk receptionist at a cancer clinic (Tr. 45-47).

         After a hearing (Tr. 30-101), an administrative law judge (ALJ) issued a December 2017 decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 15-24). The ALJ followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation for assessing disability. See generally20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (outlining the process). The ALJ found that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) from October 2016 through June 2017, but that there was a continuous 12-month period during which Plaintiff did not engage in SGA (Tr. 17). At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments (lymphoma stage one post-surgery and in remission and mild headaches), but that her medical conditions did not meet or equal the criteria of the disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (Tr. 17-19). The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of light work (Tr. 19-22). Considering this RFC, and consistent with vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a character actor and a management trainee, as those jobs were actually and generally performed (Tr. 22). In the alternative, the ALJ also found that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform (Tr. 22-23). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the strict standards of the Act (Tr. 23-24).

         The Appeals Council then denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981; 422.210(a). This appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of the Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. As the Supreme Court recently reiterated, “[o]n judicial review, an ALJ's factual findings . . . ‘shall be conclusive' if supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Biestek 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. While 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). Under this deferential standard, this Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). 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.

         DISCUSSION

         The Social Security Act (“Act”) defines “disability” as the “inability 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); 1382c(a)(3)(A). Moreover, the Act considers an individual disabled “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant qualifies as disabled within the meaning of the Act, the Social Security Administration employs a five-part sequential evaluation. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The analysis evaluates whether:

(1) The claimant presently engages in substantial gainful activity;
(2) The claimant has a medically severe physical or mental impairment ...

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