United States District Court, D. Colorado
MARSHALL L. DUNN, SR., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
KRISTEN L. MIX, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record [#9],  filed on July 2, 2014, in support of Plaintiff's Complaint [#1] seeking review of the decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 (the "Act"). See Compl. [#1]. On July 30, 2014, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#12] (the "Brief"). Defendant filed a Response [#13] in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#14]. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, this case is REVERSED and REMANDED to the Commissioner for further fact finding.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on March 6, 2008, at the age of fifty-three. Tr. 166. On December 8, 2010, he filed for Title II disability insurance benefits. Tr. 166. On November 7, 2012, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ"). Tr. 24. On November 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which she determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2013. Tr. 12. She further determined that he engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") subsequent to his alleged onset date. Tr. 12. She noted that "claimant is not considered to be disabled for many of the quarters during which he alleges disability on the basis of earnings alone. However, giving the claimant the benefit of all doubt, the undersigned has elected to proceed with the sequential disability analysis to at least consider isolated quarters when claimant's earnings did not meet SGA level." Tr. 12.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had five severe impairments during the relevant period: (1) degenerative disc and joint disease, (2) osteopenia of the hips, (3) chronic headaches, (4) chronic pulmonary insufficiency, and (5) vertigo. Tr. 13. However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff "did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526)." Tr. 13. After reviewing the evidence of record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC"):
to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant: can stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight hour workday; can sit for a total of six hours; can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl; cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and requires no exposure to unprotected heights or confined spaces with heavy smoke or dust conditions.
Tr. 13. Based on the RFC and the testimony of an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ found that Plaintiff "was capable of performing past relevant work as a medical assistant, pharmacy technician and a convenience store assistant manager/cashier" and that these jobs did "not require the performance of work-related activities precluded" by Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 16. She therefore found Plaintiff "not disabled" at step four of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 17.
Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied his request for review of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 2. Therefore, the ALJ's decision became a final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981.
II. Standard of Review and Applicable Law
Pursuant to the Act:
[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a "disability." A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, "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."
Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a claimant is disabled if he is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying disabling impairment must be demonstrated by "medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic" findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).
"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 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 Court reviews a final decision of the Commissioner by examining the administrative record and determining "whether the [ALJ's] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However, the Court "may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." Harper v. Colvin, 528 F.Appx. 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court "may not displace the agency's choice ...