Combs v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER. The Court affirms the Commissioner's decision. Signed by Magistrate Judge Suzanne Mitchell on 5/10/22. (lb)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
Case No. CIV-21-787-SM
Acting Commissioner of Social
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Lanita Combs (Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of
Social Security's final decision that she was not "disabled" under the Social
Security Act, See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423(d)(1)(A). The parties have consented
to the undersigned for proceedings consistent with 28 U.S.C.§ 636(c). Docs. 14,
Plaintiff asks this Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision and to
remand the case for further proceedings, arguing substantial evidence does not
support the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) conclusion that she could
perform medium work. Doc. 16, at 3-7. After a careful review ofthe record(AR),
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the parties' briefs, and the relevant authority, the Court affirms the
Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).^
The Social Security 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). "This twelve-month duration
requirement applies to the claimant's inability to engage in any substantial
gainful activity, and not just [the claimant's] underlying impairment." Lax v.
Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)(citing Barnhart u. Walton, 535
U.S. 212, 218-19 (2002)).
Burden of proof.
Plaintiff"bears the burden of establishing a disability" and of"ma[king]
a prima facie showing that [s]he can no longer engage in h[er] prior work
activity." Turner v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 326, 328 (10th Cir. 1985). If Plaintiff
makes that prima facie showing, the burden of proof then shifts to the
Citations to the parties' pleadings and attached exhibits will refer to this
Court's CM/ECF pagination. Citations to the AR will refer to its original
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Commissioner to show Plaintiff retains the capacity to perform a different type
of work and that such a specific tj^e ofjob exists in the national economy.
The ALJ's findings.
The ALJ assigned to Plaintiffs case applied the standard regulatory
analysis to decide whether Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant
timeframe. AR 11-19; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see also
Wall V. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009)(describing the five-step
process). The ALJ found Plaintiff:
alleged disability beginning on November 5, 2018, but had
engaged in substantial gainful activity from March 2019 to
did not engage in substantial gainful activity for a
continuous twelve-month period(s);
had the following severe medically determinable
impairments: obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, bilateral knee
disorder, and hypertension;
had no impairment or combination of impairments that met
or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment;
had the residual functional capacity^ (RFC) to perform
medium work, except she can frequently climb, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and she can frequently
handle and finger;
Residual functional capacity "is the most [a claimant] can still do despite
[a claimant's] limitations." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1).
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was capable of performing her past relevant work as a home
health aide; and so,
had not been under a disability from November 5, 2018,
through January 29, 2021.
Appeals Council's findings.
The Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs
request for review, see id. at 1-6, making the ALJ's decision "the
Commissioner's final decision for [judicial] review." Krauser v. Astrue,638 F.3d
1324, 1327(10th Cir. 2011).
Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.
The Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine
"whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the
ALJ applied the correct legal standards." Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326,
1330 (10th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla, but less
than a preponderance." Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084; see also Biestek v. Berryhill, 139
S. Ct. 1148, 1154(2019)("It means—and means only—such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."). A
decision is not based on substantial evidence "if it is overwhelmed by other
evidence in the record." Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052. The Court will "neither reweigh
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the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." Newbold v.
Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262(10th Cir. 2013).
Issues for judicial review.
Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred because substantial evidence does not
support his conclusion Plaintiff could perform medium work. Doc. 16, at 3. She
maintains the ALJ overlooked evidence about her knees, and thus improperly
made his conclusions about Plaintiffs ability to stand and walk. Id.
Plaintiff points to the following evidence:
• October 2, 2017 examination by Dr. William Schnitz that her
"right knee is painful and has crepitus"; showed "[sjmall
Pellegrini-Stieda lesions bilaterally"; and a "[sjmall [lateral] right
tibial plateau osteoph3d;e."
• November 3, 2017 MRI results:
1) Intrasubstance degeneration with adjacent superior articular
surface fraying of the anterior horn medial meniscus with no
discrete meniscal tear identified; 2) Radial tear of the posterior
horn lateral meniscus. Complex tear of the anterior horn lateral
meniscus with radial component. 3)Mild to moderate subchondral
cystic degenerative changes underlying the medial tibial spine; 4)
Multiloculated focal fluid joint collection versus ganglion cyst
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adjacent to the posterior aspect of the lateral femoral condyle
measuring 2.46x0.8cm; 5) Mild joint effusion; 6) Small Baker's
February 2, 2018 examination by Dr. Schnitz, who found "[k]nees
without effusion";"[rjight knee is painful and has crepitus";"[gjait
antalgic" and he rated her rheumatoid arthritis as worse;
May 4, 2018 examination by Dr. Schnitz who diagnosed Plaintiff
with "[ojsteoarthritis R knee";that she needed but could not afford
a right knee replacement;
January 16, 2020 Dr. Schnitz found: "bilateral kneeQ [joints] are
tender to palpation," and noted she had "full range of motion and
March 19, 2020 x-ray showed "mild degenerative changes of the
knees bilaterally, greatest in the lateral compartment of the right
April 27, 2020 emergency room visit with chief complaint of
"chronic left leg pain" from arthritis; Dr. Thomas Ingmire found
she had "inflammation around her left knee mild effusion mild
tenderness with palpation no obvious erythema";
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• April 29, 2020 MRI she was unable to lay with her knee straight;
• April 29, 2020 MRI results;
1) Joint effusion with severe synovitis, diffuse chondral thinning,
and juxta-articular marrow edema. This is likely secondary to
inflammatory arthritis versus less likely septic joint depending
upon the clinical settings. Recommend correlation
inflammatory markers and serology; 2) Prepatellar and popliteal
Doc. 16, at 4-6.
Plaintiff maintains that her consistent knee pain and her need for a knee
replacement conflict with the ALJ's conclusion she could perform medium work
(and she also asserts she cannot perform light work). Id. at 6. Because she has
no skills transferable to the sedentary level, she argues,"[sjubstantial evidence
supports a sedentary or less RFC." Id. at 7.
The Commissioner ably points out that the ALJ considered each of the
above items, AR 17-18, and contrasted them with other medical evidence of
record. Doc. 20, at 6. In so doing, the ALJ noted the treatment Plaintiff received
as well, like prescriptions for rheumatoid arthritis, AR 17, 342, 343, 338, and
right knee injections for the treatment of primary osteoarthritis, id. at 17, 339,
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340, 345. The ALJ also noted tenderness in the knees, but mild degenerative
changes, id. at 17, 433-34, normal range of motion, id. at 17, 440, 446, normal
gait, id. at 17-18, 330, 359, 374, 382, 390, 396, 459, and normal sensation and
strength, id. at 339. He recognized her emergency room visits that showed
normal ranges of motion with tenderness, and mild degenerative changes in
the knees bilaterally, greatest in the lateral compartment of the right knee, id.
at 18, 433, 435.
The ALJ also found the state agency medical consultants' opinions
unsupported by "appropriate explanation." Id. at 19. These opinions found
"insufficient evidence" existed to "evaluate the claim." Id. at 74, 85, 94. The
ALJ found no record evidence supported the limitations Plaintiff requests.
Id. at 17.
The ALJ retains the duty to determine a plaintiffs RFC based on the
record as a whole. Terwilliger v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec'y Admin., 801 F. App'x 614,
628(10th Cir. 2020); see AR 15. The Court finds the ALJ performed his duty to
review the evidence and make administrative findings of fact and conclusions
of law, and to decide Plaintiffs RFC. See Howard v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 945,
949(10th Cir. 2004)(ALJ, not physician, charged with determining RFC from
medical record). The ALJ considered Plaintiffs functional limitations caused
by her obesity, and imposed limitations that he found the record supported. AR
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13-14 (imposing limitations to frequent versus constant for a variety of
exertional and nonexertional activities). He discounted Plaintiffs consistency,
noting her activities of daily living which included daily food preparation, doing
laundry, housekeeping, grocery and household-item shopping, driving, leaving
the house without assistance, and visiting with family. Id. at 16. He noted
Plaintiff reported no side effects from her medication. Id.\ see also Carter v.
Massanari, 20 F. App'x 816, 822(10th Cir. 2001)("The final responsibility for
determining RFC rests with the Commissioner, and because the assessment is
made based upon of all the evidence in the record, not only the relevant medical
evidence, it is well within the province of the ALJ."). He also questioned
Plaintiff about her working as a home health aide from March 2019 through
February 2020. Id. at 35-36. And he relied on the vocational expert's testimony
in making his findings. Id. at 19.
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions.
Based on the above, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.
ENTERED this 10th day of May, 2022.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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