United States District Court, D. Colorado
BADER L. LEDBETTER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Nina Y. Wang United States Magistrate Judge
This civil action comes before the court pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83(c) for review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision denying Plaintiff, Bader L. Ledbetter’s, application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated October 13, 2015, 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 [#23]. The court has carefully considered the Complaint filed October 17, 2014 [#1], Defendant’s Answer filed January 30, 2015 [#9], Plaintiff’s Opening Brief filed March 19, 2015 [#13], Defendant’s Response Brief filed April 30, 2015 [#14], Plaintiff’s Reply Brief filed May 12, 2015 [#15], the entire case file, the administrative record, and applicable case law. For the following reasons, I respectfully reverse and remand the Commissioner’s decision.
On January 30, 2012, Plaintiff Bader L. Ledbetter (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Ledbetter”), filed Title II and Title XVI applications with an alleged onset date of December 24, 1999. At the time of the alleged onset date, Ms. Ledbetter was 44 years old, had a high school education with two years of college experience, and had no past relevant work experience. [#10-2 at 32-33].These applications were initially denied on June 26, 2012. [Id.] Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing and appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge Richard J. Maddigan (“ALJ”) on August 8, 2013. [#10-2 at 22-40]. At the hearing, Ms. Ledbetter amended her alleged onset date to January 30, 2012, which resulted in the dismissal of her Title II claim. [#10-2 at 11, 26-27]. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision as to Plaintiff’s Title XVI claim on August 4, 2013, finding that Ms. Ledbetter had not been disabled from the alleged date of the onset of disability through the date of his decision. [#10-2 at 8-20]. On September 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed a “Request for Review of Hearing Decision, ” which the Appeals Council denied on September 18, 2014. [#10-2 at 1-4]. Ms. Ledbetter thereafter timely filed this civil action.
At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she suffers from severe depression and anxiety: “I have problems with severe depression where I have problems getting out of bed, or severe problems with sleep where I don’t sleep a lot, and when I don’t sleep a lot I have problems with anxiety and panic attacks and then my temper gets really bad.” [#10-2 at 28]. Plaintiff further testified that she has trouble functioning in general. She becomes anxious and irritable when she has to fulfill a commitment, does not sleep well, and has trouble with her memory. [#10-2 at 29]. She was receiving treatment from Axis Health Systems at the time. [#10-2 at 28].
In response to the ALJ’s skepticism regarding Plaintiff’s inability to complete a simple task based on her reported issues, Ms. Ledbetter’s attorney represented, “[w]e think the issue isn’t here so much that she’s so severe she couldn’t get herself to work, it’s that she would not be able to complete the whole workweek. She would have interruptions that would preclude her from continuing.” [#10-2 at 30]. Plaintiff testified that she last worked in a real estate office, that the job did not work out well, she “was there for a few months…[and] quit…[she] just wasn’t getting along very well.” [#10-2 at 31].
In response to questioning by her attorney, Ms. Ledbetter represented that she struggles with anxiety attacks every day. The sensation feels like a heart attack, including shooting chest pain. [#10-2 at 35-36]. She takes Xanax as a result, and she “[has] to be alone and just kind of relax.” [#10-2 at 36]. Plaintiff testified that she has difficulty interacting with other people; she becomes angry and anxious when “people talk, talk, talk to me. I get real short and kind of explosive.” [Id.] She also suffers from sleep issues and requires medication to fall asleep, including high doses of Trazodone and Temazepam. [Id.] Plaintiff represented that the poor quality and lack of sleep causes her a lot of anxiety. She further testified that she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During a manic period, she experiences higher anxiety and anger, which she described as “rage disorder, ” and she sleeps less. [#10-2 at 37]. These manic periods occur two or three times a week. [Id.] During a depressed period, she experiences severe depression, stays in bed and watches television, and generally resists doing anything. [#10-2 at 38]. Ms. Ledbetter testified she has a teenage daughter with whom she has difficulty interacting and who serves as “kind of a trigger, ” and that their disagreements contribute to her sleeping issues. [Id.]
Doris J. Shriver testified as a vocational expert (“VE”). The ALJ first asked the VE whether jobs were available for an individual of Plaintiff’s age, who “had no physical limitations, required a position involving low stress, unskilled activities, and contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public would not be frequent or prolonged, ” and who had two years of college. [#10-2 at 32-33]. The VE responded that such jobs exist. The VE specified that, considering an individual who has the ability to perform light work in accordance with a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) of 3, Plaintiff could work as a general clerk, an electronics inspector and tester, or as a file clerk. [#10-2 at 33-34]. The VE then testified that an individual with the ability to perform light work in accordance with an SVP of 2 could work as a housekeeper/cleaner or a production worker. [#10-2 at 34]. In response to the ALJ’s inquiry, the VE agreed that none of these jobs would be available for an individual who would be “off task” for 50 percent of the time. [Id.]
The ALJ issued his written decision on August 14, 2013, concluding that Ms. Ledbetter had not been disabled for SSI purposes within the meaning of the Act from the amended alleged onset date of January 30, 2012 through the date of his decision. [#10-2 at 12]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s decision, and her attorney submitted a brief dated September 10, 2013, which the Appeals Council incorporated into the record. [#10-2 at 6]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request on September 18, 2014. [#10-2 at 1]. The decision of the ALJ then became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nielson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Plaintiff filed this action on October 17, 2014. The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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); Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1075 (10th Cir. 2007). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because he 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). Moreover, the court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” White v. Massanari, 271 F.3d 1256, 1260 (10th Cir. 2001), as amended on denial of reh'g (April 5, 2002). See also Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (“The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, “[e]vidence 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).
I. The ALJ’s Decision
An individual is eligible for SSI benefits under the Act if she 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 her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy….” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(1)(3)(B). The Social Security Disability Insurance Program established by Title II of the Social Security Act, 49 Stat. 622, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., provides for the payment of disability benefits only to those who have previously contributed to the program and who suffer from a mental or physical disability. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470, 106 S.Ct. 2022, 90 L.Ed.2d 462 (1986). By contrast, the Supplemental Security Income Program, established by Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 86 Stat. 1465, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 etseq., provides for the ...