United States District Court, D. Colorado
RICHARD E. MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Kristen L. Mix United States Magistrate Judge
This matter is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record [#11],  filed December 19, 2014, in support of Plaintiff’s Complaint [#1] seeking review of the decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff’s claim for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. On February 12, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#14] (the “Brief”). Defendant filed a Response [#15] (the “Response”) in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#16]. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). The Court has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled at the age of forty-one on June 1, 2011, due to anxiety, arthritis, hypertension, high blood pressure, paranoia, alcoholism, and left knee problems. Tr. 119, 144. On January 26, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI. Tr. 140. On March 28, 2013, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”). Tr. 25. Plaintiff and Dennis Duffin, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. Tr. 26. On April 25, 2013, the ALJ entered her Decision, finding that Plaintiff was “not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act.” Tr. 23.
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since January 26, 2012 (the date of Plaintiff’s application). Tr. 12. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from five severe impairments: (1) hypertension, (2) alcohol abuse in remission, (3) major depressive disorder, (4) generalized anxiety disorder, and (5) obesity.Tr. 12. However, the ALJ also found that these impairments, individually or in combination, do not meet or medically equal “the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” Tr. 13. The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with the following limitations: (1) “does not require exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery, ” (2) “does not require more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers or the general public, ” (3) “does not require complex judgment or decision-making;” and (4) “does not require the ability to understand, remember, and carry out complex or detailed instructions such that he needs to perform work which has a Specific Job Preparation (SVP) less than or equal to 3.” Tr. 14. Based on the RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was still able to perform his past relevant work as a “Hog Farm Laborer, ” and additionally that “there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] is also able to perform . . . .” Tr. 21. Specifically, based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform the representative occupations of “Cleaner II, ” “Industrial Sweeper Cleaner, ” and “Hand Packager.” Tr. 22. She therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step four and, alternatively, at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 347. The ALJ’s decision has become the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
II. Standard of Review and Applicable Law
Pursuant to the Act:
[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a “disability.” A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, “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.”
Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a claimant is disabled if he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying disabling impairment must be demonstrated by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic” findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).
“When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act. To be disabling, the claimant’s condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).
The Court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner by examining the administrative record and determining “whether the [ALJ’s] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However, the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Harper v. Colvin, 528 F. App’x 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court “may not displace the agency’s choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if the Court may have “made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).
A. Legal Standard
The Social Security Administration uses a five-step framework to determine whether a claimant meets the necessary conditions to receive Social Security benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and if the claimant fails at any of these steps, consideration of any subsequent steps is unnecessary. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (“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.”). The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
Step one requires the ALJ 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)). If not, the ALJ considers at step two whether a claimant has “a medically severe impairment or impairments.” Id. “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). Next, at step three, the ALJ considers whether a claimant’s medically severe impairments are equivalent to a condition “listed in the appendix of the relevant disability regulation, ” i.e., the “Listings.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quoting Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142). “If a claimant’s impairments are not equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ must consider, at step four, whether a claimant’s impairments prevent [him] from ...