United States District Court, D. Colorado
RENEE D. MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
R. Brooke Jackson Judge
Judge R. Brooke Jackson This matter is before the Court on review of the Commissioner’s decision denying claimant Renee D. Martinez’s application for Social Security disability benefits. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court reverses and remands the Commissioner’s decision.
I. Standard of Review
This appeal is based upon the administrative record and briefs submitted by the parties. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the role of the District Court is to examine the record and determine whether it “contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner’s] decision and whether the [Commissioner] applied the correct legal standards.” Rickets v. Apfel, 16 F.Supp.2d 1280, 1287 (D. Colo. 1998). A decision cannot be based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992).
Ms. Martinez, who was born on July 23, 1966, lives in Pueblo, Colorado. She has previously worked as a nursing supervisor, health services administrator, general duty nurse, nurse instructor, and home care provider, but she has not worked since her alleged onset date of April 21, 2011. The claimant has a history of physical and mental health problems.
A. Procedural History
On May 25, 2011, Ms. Martinez filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning April 21, 2011. The claim was initially denied on November 7, 2011. The claimant then filed a request for a hearing, which was held on December 20, 2012, in front of Administrative Law Judge Debra Boudreau. The ALJ issued a decision denying the claimant’s request for benefits on January 4, 2013. The Commission denied her request for review on July 15, 2014, and Ms. Martinez filed a timely appeal in this Court.
B. The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ issued an unfavorable opinion after evaluating all of the evidence according to the Social Security Administration’s standard five-step process. R. at 24-33. First, she found that the claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2012. R. at 26. Next, at step one, she found that Ms. Martinez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of April 21, 2011. R. at 26. At step two, the ALJ found that the claimant had the following severe impairments: obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, trochanteric bursitis, obstructive sleep apnea, depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. R. at 26. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Martinez did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. at 26-28. She then found that the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work except she can only occasionally lift 10 pounds; can stand and/or walk up to two hours; can sit up to six hours; can frequently balance; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can frequently reach overhead bilaterally, with no other limits on reaching; can handle and finger bilaterally on a frequent basis; and must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, pulmonary irritants, hazardous machinery and heights. R. at 28-32. Furthermore, the ALJ found that Ms. Martinez can understand and remember work tasks that require up to three months to learn; interact appropriately with co-workers and supervisors; and can tolerate routine work changes, travel, plan, set goals, and recognize and avoid work hazards. R. at 28-32. Turning to step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Martinez was not capable of performing any past relevant work. R. at 32. Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform. R. at 32-33. She thus concluded that Ms. Martinez had not been under a disability. R. at 33.
The claimant contends that the ALJ made the following errors in her opinion denying benefits: (1) the ALJ improperly adopted the opinion of the single decision maker (“SDM”) under the guise of following Dr. Panek’s opinion; (2) the ALJ improperly assigned little weight to the opinion of Dr. Hess, Ms. Martinez’s treating physician; and (3) the ALJ erred in giving great weight to Dr. Suyeishi’s opinion and then failing to account for the limitations he identified. The Court will address each in turn.
A. The SDM’s Opinion
Ms. Martinez argues that the ALJ improperly relied on the opinion of the SDM under the guise of following Dr. Panek’s opinion. ECF No. 12 at 20. An opinion by an SDM is not a medical opinion and is worthy of no weight in an ALJ's RFC assessment. Ogden v. Astrue, No. 10-cv-2450, 2012 WL 917287, at*4 (D.Colo. Mar. 19, 2012) (holding that “the opinion of an SDM, who is not a medical professional of any stripe, is entitled to no weight”). However, the ALJ may afford weight to a state agency ...