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Amanda M. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah, Northern Division

September 30, 2019

AMANDA M., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          PAUL M. WARNER Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to have Chief United States Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner conduct all proceedings in this case, including trial, entry of final judgment, and all post-judgment proceedings.[2] See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. Plaintiff Amanda M. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, see 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, see 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. After careful review of the administrative record, the parties’ briefs, and the relevant law, the court concludes that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff alleges disability due to various physical and mental impairments. Plaintiff applied for DIB on February 11, 2014, and SSI on May 2, 2014, alleging disability beginning in October 2013.[3] These claims were denied initially on October 9, 2014, [4] and upon reconsideration on November 18, 2014.[5] Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing; and Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held on November 2, 2016.[6] On December 8, 2016, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a written decision denying Plaintiff’s claims for DIB and SSI.[7] On January 18, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, [8] making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         On February 14, 2018, Plaintiff filed her complaint in this case.[9] On June 7, 2018, the Commissioner filed an answer and a copy of the administrative record.[10] Plaintiff filed her opening brief on July 20, 2018.[11] The Commissioner filed an answer brief on August 22, 2018.[12]Plaintiff filed her reply brief on September 21, 2018.[13]


         This 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) (quotations and citation omitted). 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, [this court may] neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Madrid v. Barnhart, 447 F.3d 788, 790 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotations and citation omitted). “The failure 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)-(v), 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).

Step one determines whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If [the claimant] is, disability benefits are denied. If [the claimant] is not, the decision maker must proceed to step two: determining whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. . . . If the claimant is unable to show that his impairments would have more than a minimal effect on his ability to do basic work activities, he is not eligible for disability benefits. If, on the other hand, the claimant presents medical evidence and makes the de minimis showing of medical severity, the decision maker proceeds to step three.

Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51 (quotations and citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii).

         “Step three determines whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that . . . are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity . . . . If the impairment is listed and thus conclusively presumed to be disabling, the claimant is entitled to benefits. If not, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step . . . .” Williams, 844 F.2d at 751 (quotations and citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         At step four, the claimant must show that the impairment prevents performance of his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). “If the claimant is able to perform his previous work, he is not disabled.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 751. If, however, the claimant is not able to perform his previous work, he “has met his burden of proof, establishing a prima facie case of disability.” Id.

         At this point, “[t]he evaluation process . . . proceeds to the fifth and final step.” Id. At this step, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, and the decision maker must determine “whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity [(“RFC”)] . . . to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience.” Id.; 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, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), he is disabled and entitled to benefits.


         On appeal, Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because the ALJ: (1) failed to consider certain record evidence in assessing Plaintiff’s RFC; (2) failed to provide a narrative discussion showing how the evidence supported the RFC assessment; and (3) failed to address whether Plaintiff met the requirements for a closed period of disability. For the reasons that follow, the court finds Plaintiff has failed to provide the court grounds on which to overturn the decision of the Commissioner. The court finds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record.

         I. RFC

         A. Substantial Evidence

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work subject to certain limitations is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff’s recurrent hospitalizations, surgeries, and recovery periods. The court disagrees.

         A disabling impairment must limit the ability to perform substantial gainful activity for no less than 12 consecutive months. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909; Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 219 (2002) (stating that a claimant is not disabled “if within 12 months after the onset of an impairment . . . the impairment no longer prevents substantial gainful activity”); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1522, 416.922 (discussing unrelated concurrent and non-concurrent impairments that may not meet the 12-month duration test).

         While the numerous medical difficulties and treatments certainly left Plaintiff unable to work for various durations of time, the record as a whole does not demonstrate that Plaintiff’s impairments were of such severity that she was unable to engage in any gainful activity for a continuous durational period of 12 months. In reaching this determination, the ALJ considered each hospitalization, surgery, examination, recovery update, and resulting limitations, and determined-based on the totality of the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the record-that Plaintiff was capable of performing sedentary work throughout various durations through the relevant time period of October 2013 through December 2016.[14] Additionally, Plaintiff was able to work a sedentary job during the first quarter of 2016, and lost that job only because she did not have enough ...

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