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Vance v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

January 19, 2016

CAROLYN J. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



Plaintiff Patricia Jane Vance claims in this Social Security appeal that the Commissioner's decision to deny her supplemental security income under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) is contrary to law and not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons explained below, the Commissioner’s decision will be affirmed.


Plaintiff applied for benefits in October, 2011, alleging disability due to a nerve disorder. (Tr. 23, 205.) Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff appealed the denial to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). After an administrative hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 1, 2013. (Tr. 31.)

In his decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s claim using the “five-step” sequential analysis prescribed by the Social Security Regulations.[1] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. In doing so, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of inherited myopathy versus conversion disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, and borderline intellectual functioning. (Tr. 25.) At step 3 of the sequential analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of one contained in the Listings.[2] (Tr. 26.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] to perform a range of work activity that requires no more than a sedentary level of physical exertion, accommodates the use of a walker, and involves only unskilled, simple, routine, and repetitive work activity. (Tr. 27.) The ALJ stated that although Plaintiff has no past relevant work, there are jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform. (Tr. 30.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits.

Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration (“Appeals Council”). The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

Plaintiff makes several arguments on appeal. First, she contends the ALJ failed to properly evaluate whether she met Neurological Listing 11.17, and Listing 12.05, which pertains to intellectual disability. Second, Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ’s credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s RFC assessment is flawed because the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician. Finally, Plaintiff claims that the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert was improper and does not constitute reliable, substantial evidence. The Court will consider each of these arguments below.


A denial of benefits by the Commissioner is reviewed to determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 960 (8th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s conclusion.” Id. at 960-61. Evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner’s decision must be considered, but the decision may not be reversed merely because substantial evidence exists for a contrary outcome. See Moad v. Massanari, 260 F.3d 887, 890 (8th Cir. 2001).

1. Listings

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly found, at step three of the sequential analysis, that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal a Listing. “The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that his impairment matches all the specified criteria of a listing.” McDade v. Astrue, 720 F.3d 994, 1001 (8th Cir. 2013). “To establish equivalency, a claimant must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.” Carlson v. Astrue, 604 F.3d 589, 595 (8th Cir. 2010) (quotation omitted). The Court finds that the ALJ’s conclusions with respect to the Listings are supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have found her condition meets or equals a Neurological Listing, in particular Listing 11.17.[4] This Listing encompasses “[d]egenerative disease not listed elsewhere, such as Huntington’s chorea, Friedreich’s ataxia, and spino-cerebellar degeneration” with “[d]isorganization of motor function as described in 11.04B” or “[c]hronic brain syndrome.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 11.17. Disorganization of motor function is defined as “[s]ignificant and persistent disorganization of motor function in two extremities, resulting in sustained disturbance of gross and dexterous movements, or gait and station.” Id.

The medical evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s condition does not meet the requirements of Listing 11.17. Plaintiff maintains that the medical evidence shows that she has neurological issues which cause her difficulty walking. However, for the most part, neurological testing has been normal. (Tr. 28.) Although a neurological examination in 2011 showed decreased sensation, weakness, and an abnormal gait, Plaintiff had mostly 5/5 strength in her extremities. (Tr. 256.) Further, an examination in 2012 showed a narrow gait, but muscle testing was 5/5, sensation was intact, and Plaintiff was able to lift herself from a seated to standing position without the use of her arms. (Tr. 28, 539.) After that appointment, there is no other evidence of treatment with a neurologist. While some evidence may suggest that Plaintiff has some difficulty walking, the “mere fact that some evidence may support a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Commissioner does not allow [a] Court to reverse the decision of the ALJ.” Johnson v. Colvin, 788 F.3d 870, 873 (8th Cir. 2015) (quotation omitted).

Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ’s opinion is cursory, and does not contain a sufficient discussion as to whether Plaintiff’s condition meets Listing 11.17. She argues that this matter should be remanded so that the ALJ can provide a detailed analysis of evidence related to the Listing. In his discussion of the Neurological Listings, the ALJ did not go into much detail. However, the ALJ did state that he had evaluated medical and other evidence in conjunction with all the relevant severity criteria contained within the neurological series of listed ...

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