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Harper v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 24, 2016

DENNIS P. HARPER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Nina Y. Wang United States Magistrate Judge

This action comes before the court pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83(c) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision denying Plaintiff Dennis P. Harper’s application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated March 24, 2015 [#18], this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge “for all purposes” pursuant to the Pilot Program to Implement the Direct Assignment of Civil Cases to Full Time Magistrate Judges and Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See [#18]. The court has carefully considered the Complaint [#1, filed July 23, 2014], Defendant’s Answer [#6, filed Dec. 1, 2014], Plaintiff’s Opening Brief [#10, filed Jan. 28, 2015], Defendant’s Response Brief [#11, filed Feb. 27, 2015], Plaintiff’s Reply Brief [#14, filed Mar. 13, 2015], the entire case file, the administrative record, and applicable case law. For the following reasons, I respectfully REVERSE the Commissioner’s decision and REMAND for further consideration, on the limited issue of limitations, if any, posed by Plaintiff’s social functioning.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB under Title II of the Act on February 18, 2011, and an application for SSI under Title VI of the Act on April 10, 2012. See [#7-2 at 69]. After initial and reconsideration denials, a video hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 31, 2012. The ALJ issued a hearing decision on November 19, 2012, which denied the application for disability benefits at the last step of the five-step sequence for determining disability. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (summarizing steps).

At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr. Harper has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 27, 2009, the alleged onset date of his disability. [#7-2 at 71]. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Harper “has the following severe impairments: Residuals of right wrist fusion and right little finger fracture; and arthritis in right knee.” [#7-2 at 71]. The ALJ found that Mr. Harper’s “medically determinable mental impairments of affective disorder and alcoholism do not cause more than minimal limitations in [his] ability to perform basic mental work activities and are therefore non-severe.” [#7-2 at 71]. At step three, the ALJ held that Mr. Harper’s musculoskeletal impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [#7-2 at 74]. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Harper was unable to perform any past relevant work (including as a pipe fitter, plumber supervisor, mine mechanic, and heating and air conditioning technician) because the demands of his past relevant work exceed his residual functional capacity. [#7-2 at 82]. At step five, the ALJ determined that considering Mr. Harper’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, and therefore determined that a finding of “not disabled” was appropriate. [#7-2 at 82-83].

On June 24, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision, thereby rendering the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See [#7-2 at 2]; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993). Plaintiff filed this action on July 24, 2014. See [#1]. The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

LEGAL STANDARDS

I. Standard of Review

In reviewing the Commissioner’s final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in his decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992) (internal citation omitted). The court will not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ’s findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070 (internal citation omitted). Nevertheless, “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) (internal citation omitted).

II. Social Security Disability Appeal Process

An individual is eligible for DIB benefits under the Act if he is insured, has not attained retirement age, has filed an application for DIB, and is under a disability as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(a)(1). Supplemental Security Income is available to an individual who is financially eligible, files an application for SSI, and is disabled as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. An individual is determined to be under a disability 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 . . . .” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has developed a five-step evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Act. See Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988) (describing the five steps in detail). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Id. at 750. “Step one requires the agency to determine whether a claimant is ‘presently engaged in substantial gainful activity.’” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quoting Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1142 (10th Cir. 2004). Step two requires the agency to consider whether a claimant has “a medically severe impairment or impairments.” Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142. “An impairment is severe under the applicable regulations if it significantly limits a claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). At step three, the ALJ considers whether a claimant’s medically severe impairments “meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1203 (10th Cir. 2015).

If the claimant’s impairments are not equivalent to a listed impairment, at step four of the evaluation process, the ALJ must determine a claimant’s Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and compare the RFC to the claimant’s past relevant work. The RFC is what a claimant is still “functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments: the claimant's maximum sustained work capability.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 751. “The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis.” Neilson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993).

At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that a claimant can perform work that exists in the national economy, taking into account the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience. Neilson, 992 F.2d at 1120.

A claimant’s RFC to do work is what the claimant is still functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments: the claimant’s maximum sustained work capability. The decision maker first determines the type of work, based on physical exertion (strength) requirements, that the claimant has the RFC to perform. In this context, work existing in the economy is classified as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy. To determine the claimant’s “RFC category, ” the decision maker assesses a claimant’s physical abilities and, consequently, takes into account the claimant’s exertional limitations (i.e., limitations in meeting the strength requirements of work) . . . .
If a conclusion of “not disabled” results, this means that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy for which the claimant is still exertionally capable of performing. However, . . . [t]he decision maker must then consider all relevant facts to determine whether claimant’s work capability is further diminished in terms of jobs contraindicated by nonexertional limitations. …
Nonexertional limitations may include or stem from sensory impairments; epilepsy; mental impairments, such as the inability to understand, to carry out and remember instructions, and to respond appropriately in a work setting; postural and manipulative disabilities; psychiatric ...

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