United States District Court, D. Nebraska
DAVID L. KNUTSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
E. STROM, Senior Judge.
matter is before the Court with regard to the decision of the
Acting Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner” or “defendant”),
denying disability insurance benefits and supplemental social
security income to David L. Knutson (“plaintiff”
or “Knutson”). Plaintiff filed a motion for an
order reversing the Commissioner's decision (Filing No.
15) and defendant filed a motion to affirm the
Commissioner's decision (Filing No. 16). This
matter has been fully briefed, and the administrative record
(“record”) has been provided to the Court.
See Filing Nos. 8, 9, 15-1, 17, and 18. After
careful review of the briefs, the record, and applicable law,
the Court finds as follows.
December 5, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental social
security income under of the Social Security Act (Filing No.
8-2 at 15). Plaintiff's claims were denied
initially and again on reconsideration (Id.).
10, 2014, plaintiff's claims were heard in front of an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Omaha,
Nebraska (Id.). On October 24, 2014, the ALJ issued
a written decision denying plaintiff's claims
(Id. at 28). On January 31, 2016, the Appeals
Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for
the purpose of judicial review (Id. at 2). On March
15, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint with this Court seeking
judicial review in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(Filing No. 1).
Commissioner's decision will be affirmed “if the
record contains substantial evidence to support it.”
Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir.
2003). “Substantial evidence is less than a
preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept
it as adequate to support a decision.” Haley v.
Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). “In
determining whether existing evidence is substantial, [a
court should] consider evidence that detracts from the
Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports
it.” Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d 707, 711
(8th Cir. 2001). If the record reveals substantial evidence
supporting the Commissioner's decision, then that
decision should not be reversed merely because
“substantial evidence exists in the record that would
have supported a different outcome.” Hutsell,
259 F.3d at 711. A reviewing court does “not reweigh
the evidence presented to the ALJ, and [the court] defer[s]
to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of
testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by
good reasons and substantial evidence.” Mabry v.
Colvin, 815 F.3d 386, 389 (8th Cir. 2016) (internal
quotation and citation omitted). Finally, the claimant
“bears the burden of proving disability.”
Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 615 (8th Cir. 2011).
alleges disability due to chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease, coronary artery disease, degenerative lumbar disc
disease, obesity, and anxiety with an onset date of August 1,
2012 (Filing No. 15-1 at 6). To determine if a
claimant is disabled, the Social Security Administration
utilizes a five-step sequential test. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4); see also Hacker v. Barnhart,
459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006). A claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) is determined between
steps three and four of the sequential test. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). This RFC is utilized at steps four and five
to determine if the claimant can perform past relevant work
or other work within the national economy. Id.
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in the determination of
Knutson's RFC, resulting in an improper step five
determination that Knutson would be able to work in the
national economy (Filing No. 15-1 at 18 and 41).
argues that the ALJ's determination of Knutson's RFC
is not supported by substantial evidence (Filing No.
15-1 at 18). Knutson asserts three assignments of
error related to the ALJ's RFC determination. First,
plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the
non-examining doctors' opinions (Id. at 21).
Second, plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly weigh
and evaluate the opinions of Knutson's treating
pulmonologist, Dr. Huerta, and Knutson's primary care
provider, Ms. Belitz (Id. at 25). Finally, plaintiff
argues that the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinion of
consultative examiner Dr. Patera, and Ms. Belitz's
response to his report (Id. at 38).
claimant's RFC is a medical question which must be
supported by some medical evidence. Cox v. Astrue,
495 F.3d 614, 619 (8th Cir. 2007). However, “in
evaluating a claimant's RFC, an ALJ is not limited to
considering medical evidence exclusively.”
Cox, 495 F.3d at 619. The ALJ bears the
“responsibility to determine a claimant's RFC based
on all relevant evidence, including medical records,
observations of treating physicians and others, and
claimant's own descriptions of his limitations.”
Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir.
2001). “Even though the RFC assessment draws from
medical sources for support, it is ultimately an
administrative determination reserved to the
Commissioner.” Cox, 495 F.3d at 619. Finally,
“[t]he claimant has the burden to establish his
RFC.” Marby, 815 F.3d at 390.
thorough review of the record as a whole, the Court finds
that the ALJ's evaluation of, and weight provided to,
each medical opinion in the record is supported by good
reasons and substantial evidence. See Mabry, 815
F.3d at 389. Accordingly, the ALJ's determination that
Knutson's RFC permitted him to perform sedentary work
with specific limitations was within the available zone of
choice for the ALJ. See Papesh v. Colvin, 786 F.3d
1126, 1131 (8th Cir. 2015) (holding that an ALJ's
decision will only be disturbed if it falls outside the
available zone of choice).
found the ALJ's determination of Knutson's RFC is
supported by good reasons and substantial evidence, the Court
turns to plaintiff's other alleged error. Plaintiff
argues that as a result of an erroneous RFC determination,
the ALJ posed an inaccurate hypothetical question to the
vocational expert (Filing No. 15-1 at 41). Plaintiff
asserts that the ALJ's reliance on the resulting
testimony from the vocational expert led to an erroneous
determination, at step five of the sequential test, that
Knutson can perform other sedentary work in the national
January 10, 2014, hearing, the ALJ posed a hypothetical
question to the vocational expert premised on the RFC.
See Filing No. 8-2 at 72. The vocational
expert testified that there was other work within the
national economy that a person with Knutson's RFC and
limitations could perform (Id. at 72-73). The ALJ