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Amy L. T v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

September 9, 2019

AMY L. T, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). After careful review of the entire record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on August 22, 2019, the undersigned concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and free of harmful legal error and is, therefore, AFFIRMED.


         A. Statutory and Regulatory Background

         To establish that she is disabled, a claimant must show that she was unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to some medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that lasted, or were expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A disabling physical or mental impairment is defined as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D). The claimant has the burden of furnishing medical and other evidence establishing the existence of a disabling impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A), applicable to SSI cases through § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i).

         The federal regulations set forth a five-step sequential analysis that an administrative law judge (ALJ) must follow in determining the ultimate issue of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. A claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, at which point the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that there is other work in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a), 416.912(a) (The claimant generally bears the ultimate burden of proving that she was disabled throughout the period for which benefits are sought); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         B. Standard of Review

         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. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court may neither “reweigh the evidence [n]or substitute [its] judgment for the [ALJ's].” Id. (citation omitted). Where the evidence as a whole can support either the agency's decision or an award of benefits, the agency's decision must be affirmed. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).


         Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB in September 2014 and applied for SSI in December 2014, alleging disability since August 1, 2013 (Certified Administrative Transcript (Tr.)) 11, 180-90). She alleged disability due to symptoms related to lumbar degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety (Tr. 13, 208). Plaintiff attended two years of college and worked previously for the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) as a security screener and a lead transportation security officer (Tr. 33-34, 47-48, 209, 262).

         After a February 2017 administrative hearing (Tr. 27-51), an ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. 11-22). The ALJ followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation for assessing disability. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (explaining the five-step process). At step two the ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease with lumbago, sacroiliac dysfunction, migraines, obesity, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder. (Tr. 13). None of these medical impairments were found to meet or equal the criteria of the disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 1 (Tr. 13-17). After further consideration of the evidence, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a range of light work involving simple, routine tasks that can be learned within 30 days with no more than occasional changes in the workplace (Tr. 17-20). At step four, the ALJ found that, given this RFC, Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a TSA screener or officer. At step five, however, the ALJ determined that she could perform other light-exertion jobs in the national economy such as a cashier II, photocopy machine operator and cafeteria attendant (Tr. 21-22; Tr. 49-50).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's ensuing request for review (Tr. 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481, 422.210(a).[1] This timely appeal followed.

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal Plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ's RFC findings about her subjective symptom testimony are not supported by substantial evidence; and, (2) the ALJ erred by not accepting responses to alternative hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert after the ALJ's initial hypothetical ...

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