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Houseman v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 2, 2015

D’ANNA L. HOUSEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

ORDER REVERSING ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE’S DECISION AND REMANDING FOR AN IMMEDIATE AWARD OF BENEFITS

William J. Martínez United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Defendant”) decision to deny Plaintiff D’Anna Houseman’s (“Plaintiff”) application for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief (ECF No. 13), Defendant filed a Response (ECF No. 14), and Plaintiff filed a Reply (ECF No. 15). After reviewing the briefs and administrative record filed with the Court, Defendant’s decision to deny Plaintiff’s application disability insurance benefits is reversed and this matter is remanded for an immediate award of benefits.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on October 25, 1967. (Record (“R.”) (ECF No. 9) at 1128.) Plaintiff’s medical records indicate she has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, migraines, degenerative joint disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, chiari malformation, and lichen planus. (Id. at 22-23; 1156.) Plaintiff alleges a disability onset date of October 30, 2006. (Id. at 870.) Plaintiff has past relevant work as a food service manager and a receptionist. (Id. at 875.)

Plaintiff initially filed an application for benefits in August 2009 (id. at 216), which was denied on July 27, 2011 by Administrative Law Judge Kathryn Burgchardt (“the ALJ”). (Id. at 28.) The Social Security Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s July 2011 decision. (Id. at 1.) On September 13, 2012, Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision to this Court. (Id. at 867.) The Court vacated and remanded the ALJ’s decision for multiple reasons, including the lack of substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding. Houseman v. Colvin, 2013 WL 4657646, at *1 (D. Colo. Aug. 30, 2013).

In July 2013, prior to the issuance of the Court’s remand order, Plaintiff filed a second application for benefits. (R. at 1128-29.) The ALJ consolidated these two cases, and, on May 20, 2014, the ALJ again found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 876.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the May 20, 2014 decision. (Id. at 847-48.)

In her May 20, 2014 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the date of her application for benefits through the date of the decision. (Id. at 876.) The ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with the Commissioner’s five-step sequential evaluation process.[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 30, 2006. (Id. at 870.) At step two, the ALJ held that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; migraines; degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, status-post knee replacements; carpal tunnel syndrome, post release; lichen planus; and obesity. (Id.) In addition to Plaintiff’s severe impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following non-severe impairments: anemia, vitamin D deficiency, a chiari malformation, hemangioma, nausea status post gastric bypass surgery, and hypertension.[2] (Id.) At step three, the ALJ held that Plaintiff’s impairments do not meet or equal the severity of the established listing of impairments under the governing regulations. (Id.) The ALJ then analyzed Plaintiff’s RFC, concluding that Plaintiff has the RFC to:

lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand or walk a total of four to six hours, and sit a total of six hours, in an eight-hour workday, but she may use a cane to ambulate and she requires a sit/stand option while remaining at the workstation (meaning she can sit/stand at will while performing [t]he assigned duties); perform pushing and pulling motions with her upper extremities within the aforementioned weight restrictions, but she should avoid pushing and pulling bilaterally with the lower extremities; and occasionally climb stairs and ramps, stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl, but she cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant should avoid unprotected heights, moving machinery, and extreme heat and cold. The claimant should have reasonable access to a bathroom (meaning the claimant must not be in a position in which she is unable to leave the line and must be able to get someone to cover her duties for a moment while she uses the restroom). The claimant can speak on the job, but she should not perform work that requires constant talking to the general public or co-workers.

(Id. at 871.) The ALJ then ruled at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 875.) However, considering the RFC assessment described above, along with Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience, at step five the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Id.) Those jobs include companion, cashier, and assembler. (Id. at 876.)

On December 11, 2014, Plaintiff initiated this action challenging the ALJ’s May 20, 2014 denial of benefits, which is now before the Court. (ECF No. 1.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record. Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In reviewing the Commissioner’s decision, the Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006). “On the other hand, 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).

III. ANALYSIS

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s decision in several respects, arguing that: (1) the ALJ failed at step two to consider all medically-documented impairments and the combined effect of those impairments, which had an adverse impact on the ALJ’s analysis at subsequent steps of the evaluation; (2) at step three, the ALJ failed to properly evaluate whether Plaintiff’s impairments met or medically equaled the severity of the listing of impairments; (3) the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff had the RFC for a range of light work is not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the ALJ’s step five determination is not supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 13.) Each of these assignments of error relates, in some way, to the ALJ’s treatment of Plaintiff’s lichen planus condition. The Court finds that the ALJ did not properly analyze or discuss this condition along with Plaintiff’s other impairments, which mandates reversal.

A. Lichen Planus

The Court’s August 30, 2013 Order that reversed the ALJ’s July 27, 2011 decision and remanded the matter for further proceedings was based almost entirely on the ALJ’s analysis of Plaintiff’s lichen planus condition. Houseman, 2013 WL 4657646, at *4. In her July 2011 decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s lichen planus was not a severe condition:

Claimant has also been treated for some gynecological conditions which were non-severe, namely lichen planus and irregular uterine bleeding. She has been treated for lichen planus and abnormal uterine bleeding by physicians at the University of Colorado Hospital. Claimant apparently was diagnosed with lichen planus nearly two decades ago. After the diagnosis, claimant went on to work on a full-time basis and raise a family. Her treatment for these conditions have included dilation and curettage (D&C) procedures and use of topical ointments and oral medications. She reported in August of 2010 that her medications were very helpful and prevented flares. Therefore, while medically determinable, these conditions did not impose more than minimal limitations in the ability to do basic work activities and were consequently non-severe.

(R. at 23 (citations omitted).) The Court disagreed, and found that the ALJ’s conclusion was “overwhelmed by evidence of treating physicians who proffer evidence to the contrary.” Houseman, 2013 WL 4657646, at *4. The Court also specifically rejected Defendant’s contention that because Plaintiff had endured lichen planus for two decades, this justified the ALJ’s finding that the condition was not severe. Id. at n.6. To the contrary, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s condition was “worsening” as recently as February 2011. Id. The Court further stated that “[a]ny notion that Plaintiff did not show that she was limited by lichen planus is absurd.” Id. at n.7. The Court directed the ALJ to review all the medical reports in greater detail on remand, and noted that “the ALJ well may need to obtain further medical evidence on Plaintiff’s condition so that the record can be properly developed before a final ALJ decision is made.” Id. at n.5.

In her May 20, 2014 decision following the Court’s remand Order, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s lichen planus was a severe condition. (R. at 870.) However, the ALJ did not find that the lichen planus met or equaled the severity of any established listing of impairments. (Id. at 871.) The ALJ went on to reach a conclusion in the RFC portion of the analysis similar to that in her July 2011 decision:

The claimant has also been treated for lichen planus and irregular uterine bleeding. She has been treated by physicians at the University of Colorado Hospital. The claimant apparently was diagnosed with lichen planus nearly two decades ago. After the diagnosis, the claimant went on to work on a full-time basis and raise a family. Treatment for these conditions have included dilated and curettage (D&C) procedures and use of topical ointments and oral medications. The claimant reported in August of 2010 that her medications were very helpful and prevented flares. The Claimant has experienced periods of flares; however, the evidence does not reflect that the claimant has been referred to a specialty clinic. Further it is not clear that the claimant has been consistent in complying with prescribed treatment, given her conflicting reports; in June 2012, for example, the claimant initially reported using Clobetasol cream a few times per month, but after examination reported that she is using it daily for years. The evidence does not establish the extreme limitations alleged by the claimant. To accommodate the claimant’s symptoms, however, the undersigned limits the claimant to work involving a sit/stand option, reasonable access to a bathroom and no constant talking to the general public or co-workers.

(Id. at 874 (citations omitted).)

Plaintiff objects to the ALJ’s characterization of her lichen planus. Plaintiff argues that she has not merely experienced “periods of flares”; rather, her lichen planus exhibits a chronic and unremitting condition. (ECF No. 13 at 34.) The Court agrees that the ...


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