United States District Court, D. Colorado
RHONDA R. TRUJILLO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL J. WATANABE, Magistrate Judge.
The government determined that Rhonda Trujillo is not disabled for purposes of Supplemental Security Income. Trujillo has asked this Court either to reverse that decision or to remand for further hearing.
The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Both parties have agreed to have this case decided by a U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Court AFFIRMS the government's determination.
Trujillo has a congenital growth on her right leg that has required several surgeries and skin grafts over the course of her life. The condition and its treatment have left her right leg weak and painful. She also has heel spurs, a degenerative disc condition of the spine, and fibromyalgia. Moreover, she has an affective disorder causing depression. Trujillo has not worked for any meaningful span of time at any point that the record in this case reveals, going back over fifteen years.
Trujillo applied for disability, and her case has now been heard twice by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). For the first hearing, the ALJ received 82 pages of medical records, including a physical evaluation from Dr. Troy Glaser; mental evaluations from three doctors; and medical records from the Colorado Department of Corrections and St. Mary-Corwin Hospital. The ALJ issued an adverse decision in June 2010. However, there were patent legal errors in the decision; when Trujillo pointed those out in this Court, the government voluntarily asked for a remand.
The ALJ held a second hearing in February 2013. He collected a further 213 pages of medical records. As relevant here, these records include treatment records for various physical ailments and documents from Kim Carpenter, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who treated Trujillo for her mental health issues. The ALJ also took testimony from another mental-health expert, Dr. Robert Pelc. In March 2013, the ALJ issued a second adverse decision. Applying the government's five-step analysis, he determined that although Trujillo suffers from severe limitations, those limitations nonetheless allow her to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The key issues on appeal concern the ALJ's findings as to Trujillo's ability to work. He found that she could:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant can stand and walk for [only] 2 hours per day; requires a sit/stand option; can occasionally bend and squat, but never kneel; cannot use foot or leg controls; and is limited to the performance of unskilled work, with an svp of 2 or less, involving only simple, rote, repetitive tasks; can tolerate occasional work related interaction with coworkers, but no face-to-face interaction with the general public, and minimal supervision.
The Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1075 (10th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1271-72 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court "should, indeed must, exercise common sense" and "cannot insist on technical perfection." Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012). The Court cannot reweigh the evidence or its credibility. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).
Trujillo presents several overlapping arguments for reversal, all of which boil down to whether the ALJ appropriately (or inappropriately) deferred to the judgments of others. She argues that the ALJ failed to defer to Dr. Pelc, Ms. Carpenter, Dr. Glaser, and inappropriately deferred to the State agency disability examiner.
I. The Commissioner's Authority to Determine Functional Limitations
The Social Security Administration applies a five-step process for determining disability. The first three steps attempt to rule the claimant disabled or not disabled through comparatively unambiguous tests. If those steps fail to resolve the question, the government makes an assessment of the functional limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments-coming to a conclusion of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). Once that RFC assessment is made, the government proceeds to the fourth and fifth steps of analysis: whether, with that RFC, the claimant can perform his or her past jobs; and if not, whether the claimant can perform other jobs that are available. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
The RFC assessment is "a function-by-function assessment based upon all of the relevant evidence of an individual's ability to do work-related activities." Security Ruling 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34, 474, 34, 476 (July 2, 1996). This function-by-function assessment is "reserved to the Commissioner, " see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d), meaning that the law sees a distinction between the government's ultimate RFC conclusions and the opinions of medical professionals:
The term "residual functional capacity assessment" describes an adjudicator's finding about the ability of an individual to perform work-related activities. The assessment is based upon consideration of all relevant evidence in the case record, including medical evidence and relevant nonmedical evidence, such as observations of lay witnesses of an individual's apparent symptomatology, an individual's own statement of what he or she is able or unable to do, and many other factors that could help the adjudicator determine the most reasonable findings in light of all the evidence.
A medical source's statement about what an individual can still do is medical opinion evidence that an adjudicator must consider together with all of the other relevant evidence (including other medical source statements that may be in the case record) when assessing an individual's RFC. Although an adjudicator may decide to adopt all of the opinions expressed in a medical source statement, a ...