United States District Court, D. Colorado
MARGO L. BECERRA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
R. BROOKE JACKSON, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on review of the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff Margo Becerra's application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This appeal is based upon the administrative record and briefs submitted by the parties. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the role of the district court is to examine the record and determine whether it "contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] decision and whether the [Commissioner] applied the correct legal standards." Rickets v. Apfel, 16 F.Supp.2d 1280, 1287 (D. Colo. 1998). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). Evidence is not substantial if it "constitutes mere conclusion." Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992).
The Court "may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." Harper v. Colvin, 528 F.App'x 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted). Thus, although some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court "may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, " even if the Court might "have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo." Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007). However, the Court must "meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met." Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).
Upon review, the district court "shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 45 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Ms. Becerra first applied for disability insurance benefits on February 5, 2011. She claimed inability to take part in substantially gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 9, 2003 due to a number of conditions: closed head injury leading to headaches, migraines, memory loss, and other cognitive problems; back injury; neck injury; depression; and arm pain. Ms. Becerra's date last insured is September 30, 2014. The Commissioner denied Ms. Becerra's application on August 1, 2011. Ms. Becerra then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and the ALJ conducted a hearing on June 6, 2012. During the hearing, Ms. Becerra, through her counsel, amended the alleged onset date to June 12, 2009. On June 23, 2012, ALJ Kathryn D. Burgchardt issued an opinion denying benefits. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Becerra's request for review on February 1, 2013. Thereafter, Ms. Becerra filed a timely appeal with this Court.
Ms. Becerra was involved in a motor vehicle crash in 2003 in which she sustained a closed head injury and a lower back injury. Though she recovered enough to continue working through October 2009, Ms. Becerra currently suffers from chronic headaches and migraines, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease causing chronic lower back pain, chronic neck pain, and symptoms of numbness and tingling in her upper extremities. Ms. Becerra has also been diagnosed with cognitive disorder not otherwise specified (likely stemming from the closed head injury), major depressive disorder in partial remission, and posttraumatic stress disorder in partial remission. R. 1205-06. Ms. Becerra has been prescribed medications for her physical pain and for her depression.
On June 10, 2009, Ms. Becerra went to an army hospital with complaints of lower back pain. R. 491. She reported that she had sustained a lower back injury and a closed head injury with post-concussive syndrome six years earlier in a motor vehicle accident. R. 493. She had been seeing a chiropractor for the previous six years, and the chiropractor had asked her to have an MRI done of her lumbar spine without contrast. Id. Further, he asked that she be referred for physical therapy for neck and back stabilization. Id. The examination results were normal with her lumbar spine showing good strength and a good range of motion, and negative straight leg raising tests. Id. Ms. Becerra reported that she was not having any radicular symptoms at the time, but that she occasionally had them down her right leg. Id. The doctor released Ms. Becerra without limitations. Id.
The MRI revealed a mild progression of degenerative disk disease in the lower lumbar spine with mild disk height loss at L3-4 and L4-5 since Ms. Becerra's previous examination and stable, mild disk narrowing at L5-S1. R. 488. The MRI also showed mild broad-based posterior disk bulge at L3-4 through L5-S1 with no significant narrowing of the central canal, lateral recesses, or neural foramina and no evidence of nerve root impingement. Id. Finally, it showed mild facet disease at the L4-5 level and mild endplate changes at L5-S1. Id. Otherwise, it was an "unremarkable MRI of the lumbar spine." Id.
On August 18, 2009, Ms. Becerra reported to her physical therapist that her current pain was 0/10, with her pain at no more than 4/10 that past week. R. 657. She said that she had just returned from vacation in Hawaii, and that she had been able to participate in activities without limitation. Id.
On February 3, 2010, Ms. Becerra went to a clinic complaining of lower back pain. R. 768. She told the doctor that she had been skiing that past weekend and admitted to "overdoing it" and straining her lumbar spine. Id. The doctor found that there was palpable tenderness in the lumbar area, slight bilateral spasms, and that Ms. Becerra's gait and posture were moderately antalgic. R. 769. Ms. Becerra was instructed to take prescribed medication, and a referral was made to a physical therapy group for evaluation and treatment. Id. On February 10, 2010, Ms. Becerra went to ...