United States District Court, D. Colorado
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Nina Y. Wang United States Magistrate Judge.
This matter 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 Margarita Anderson’s application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and disabled widow’s benefits (“DWB”). This civil action was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a decision on the merits pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the Order of Reference dated January 16, 2015 [#30], and D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.2. The court has carefully considered the Letter from Margarita Anderson filed on November 3, 2014 [#10]; the Response Brief filed by Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin (the “Commissioner”) on December 1, 2014 [#25], the Administrative Record that has been filed at [#19, #20],  the entire case file, and the applicable case law. Having been fully advised of the premises, and for the reasons set forth herein, this court respectfully AFFIRMS the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
Plaintiff Margarita Anderson (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Anderson”) was born in 1955 and prior to filing disability, was employed as a dental technician and in various customer service roles. Plaintiff initially filed for DIB on August 2, 2010 [#19-3 at 58] and SSI benefits on February 22, 2011 [#19-5 at 189]. Ms. Anderson then filed for DWB benefits on May 2, 2012, after the death of her husband on April 13, 2012. [#19-5 at 45-48]. Originally, Ms. Anderson identified the following bases for her claim for disability: depression; post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), arthritis, depression and anxiety, panic disorder without agoraphobia, high blood pressure/high cholesterol, and a hernia in her esophagus. [#19-3 at 60]. On appeal, she identifies a subset of those impairments as the basis for her disability and her challenge to the decision of no disability by the ALJ: (1) PTSD; (2) paranoid personality disorder; and (3) depression. [#23 at 1].
Plaintiff originally claimed a date of disability onset of June 1, 2008. [#19-3 at 61]. Her medical records from that time period indicate an increased level of anxiety and depression, but she was still working. [#19-8 at 356; #19-6 at 298]. She was originally denied benefits on May 3, 2011, with a finding that “[t]he records do not suggest that you are totally disabled. The records show that you should be able to do less demanding work.” [#19-3 at 70; #19-4 at 102]. The decision also noted that Ms. Anderson was still working at least one day a week. [Id. at 61].
On May 26, 2011, through counsel, Plaintiff requested a hearing by an ALJ. Prior to her disability hearing before the ALJ, she amended, through counsel, her disability onset date to April 20, 2009, to coincide with the last day she worked. [#19-6 at 298]. A hearing was held before ALJ Paul Conaway on August 17, 2012. [#19-2 at 30-56]. Ms. Anderson was represented during that hearing. [Id.]. During that hearing, she testified that in 2009, she was terminated from employment because she refused to return to work after a co-worker threated to kill her and she felt like all her co-workers were against her. [Id. at 40]. She further testified that her co-worker’s treatment caused her to be “sick.” [Id. at 41]. Ms. Anderson explained that “sick” meant that she was getting panic attacks. [Id. at 37]. She also testified that she had panic attacks when she was working at Wal-Mart as well. [Id. at 39]. Plaintiff describes a panic attack as being unable to breathe and wanting to run out and leave. [Id. at 43]. Ms. Anderson testified that these panic attacks could occur one to three times a week. [Id.].
She also testified that in April 2012, she began a job for Advantage Sales and Marketing, providing samples of food and drink at Wal-Mart. [Id. at 44]. She worked seven or eight weeks, two to three days per week with a hiatus due to her husband’s death. [Id. at 45-46]. When asked whether she could work more, Ms. Anderson did not cite any anxiety attacks, but noted that she got “really tired” because “we stand there all day.” [Id. at 46]. When asked how long her panic attacks lasted, Plaintiff did not provide the ALJ a direct response. [Id. at 50-51].
A vocational expert, Cindy Burnett, also testified at Ms. Anderson’s hearing before the ALJ. The ALJ asked Ms. Burnett to consider a person who had no physical limitations, but who had mental limitations; the person could perform simple tasks with reduced public contact, so that “they’re limited to unskilled work with reduced interpersonal contact with the general public.” [Id. at 55]. The contact with the public was described as “brief incidental contact … but, again, the essence of the job shouldn’t require interacting with the public, such as a waitress, telephone solicitation, sales person at a Wal-Mart.” [Id.]. The vocational expert identified a number of jobs both at the light and medium exertional levels, including housekeeper and laundry worker at the light exertional level and a janitor or hand packager at a medium exertional level. [Id. at 56]. Plaintiff’s counsel asked whether those jobs could still be performed if two or three times a week, the person had to lay down for about an hour, unscheduled, to deal with panic attacks. [Id.]. Ms. Burnett testified that those additional limitations would eliminate all competitive employment. [Id.].
The ALJ issued his decisions with regard to the DIB, SSI, and DWB benefits on September 11, 2012. One decision pertains to Plaintiff’s claim for DWB [#19-2 at 13-25]. The other pertains to the claims for DIB and SSI benefits. [#20 at 743-759]. Both rely upon the same substantive evidence, and conclude that Ms. Anderson is not disabled. [#19-2 at 13-25; #20 at 743-759]. Specifically, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act for each of the claimed type of benefit, she had not performed any substantial gainful activity since the date of onset in April 2009. He further found that she had severe impairments of major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder with panic attacks, and PTSD. The ALJ concluded that she had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at all exertional levels; that she could perform basic mental demands of unskilled work; that she could understand, remember, and carry out simple tasks where she had reduced public contact; and that her contact with the public should be limited to incidental interactions. [#19-2 at 21; #20 at 752]. The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s increase of symptoms after the initial denial of her application for disability was not credible, due to the inconsistency with reports in her prior medical records. [#19-2 at 22; #20 at 752]. The ALJ further noted that no specific functional limitations had been identified by any treating physicians. [#19-2 at 22; #20 at 752]. Considering the Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ then concluded that there were jobs of significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [#19-2 at 24-25; #20 at 754].
The Appeals Council denied Ms. Anderson’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision final for the purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
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).
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). An individual seeking disabled widow’s benefit faces additional requirements. A claimant must not only prove that she is disabled, but also that she was married to the insured for at least nine month before the death of the ...