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Gonzales v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 22, 2014

SANDRA GONZALES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

Page 1164

For Sandra Gonzales, Plaintiff: Ann J. Atkinson, LEAD ATTORNEY, Ann J. Atkinson, Attorney at Law, Aurora, CO.

For Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: J. Benedict Garcia, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office-Denver, Denver, CO; Christina J. Valerio, Thomas Henry Kraus, Social Security Administration-Denver, Office of the General Counsel, Region VIII, Denver, CO.

Page 1165

ORDER REVERSING DISABILITY DECISION AND REMANDING TO COMMISSIONER

Robert E. Blackburn, United States District Judge.

The matter before me is plaintiff's Complaint [#1],[1] filed July 12, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. I have jurisdiction to review the

Page 1166

Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The matter has been fully briefed, obviating the need for oral argument. I reverse and remand.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled as a result of bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, a seizure disorder, ulcers, and pain in her back, shoulders, and neck following two car accidents and a cervical spinal fusion. After her application for supplemental security income benefits was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. This hearing was held on February 28, 2012. At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was 48 years old. She attended three years of college and has past work experience as an administrative assistant, assistant manager, telemarketer, and waitress. Although plaintiff works part-time at a video store in her small, rural Colorado hometown, this work does not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity, and she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since at least January 28, 2010, the date of her application for benefits.

The ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to supplemental security income benefits. Although the medical evidence established that plaintiff suffered from severe physical and mental impairments,[2] the ALJ concluded that the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work with postural and non-exertional limitations. Although this finding precluded plaintiff's past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national and local economies that she could perform. He therefore found plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal court.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act only if her physical and/or mental impairments preclude her from performing both her previous work and any other " substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). " When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination." Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. To be disabling, the claimant's condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation

Page 1167

process for determining whether a claimant is disabled:

1. The ALJ must first ascertain whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is working is not disabled regardless of the medical findings.
2. The ALJ must then determine whether the claimed impairment is " severe." A " severe impairment" must significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
3. The ALJ must then determine if the impairment meets or equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations.
4. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform his past work despite any limitations.
5. If the claimant does not have the residual functional capacity to perform her past work, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and substantial work in the economy. This determination is made on the basis of the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity.

20 C.F.R. § § 416.920(a)(4) & (b)-(g). See also Williams v. Bowen844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294 n.5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step ...


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