United States District Court, D. Colorado
DENISE M. ESCARENO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
PHILIP A. BRIMMER, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on plaintiff Denise M. Escareno's opening brief [Docket No. 14], filed on June 6, 2013. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the "Commissioner") denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83c. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
On November 18, 2009, plaintiff applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Act and, on May 1, 2010, she applied for benefits under Title XVI of the Act. R. at 27. Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since November 10, 2009. Id. After an initial administrative denial of her claim, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on June 15, 2011. Id. On August 4, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. Id. at 37.
The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia and depression. R. at 29. The ALJ found that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations' listed impairments, id. at 30, and ruled that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 494.1567(b) and 416.967(b), while sitting and standing/walking for up to six hours each in a regular eight hour work day; lifting and carrying up to ten pounds frequently, and up to twenty pounds occasionally; pushing and pulling with her upper and lower extremities within the aforementioned weight restrictions; no more than frequently engaging in handling activities with her bilateral upper extremities; avoiding extremes of cold; only occasionally climbing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, or crawling; and while performing  unskilled work, with a specific vocational preparation (SVP) rating level of one or two.
Id. at 30-31. Based upon this RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ concluded that "the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." R. at 36.
The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of this denial. R. at 1. Consequently, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.
A. Standard of Review
Review of the Commissioner's finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in her decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). Moreover, "[e]vidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion." Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The district court will not "reweigh the evidence or retry the case, " but 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, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, "if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence." Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993).
B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,
[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy
exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). The steps of the evaluation are:
(1) whether the claimant is currently working; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing his past relevant work; ...