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Fuentes v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 18, 2016

BLANCA FUENTES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

Kristen L. Mix United States Magistrate Judge

This matter is before the Court[1] on the Social Security Administrative Record [#7], [2] filed February 23, 2015, 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 disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. On April 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#10] (the “Brief”). Defendant filed a Response [#11] in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#12]. 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 she became disabled at the age of thirty-eight on April 6, 2003, due to a variety of impairments. Tr. 225, 229 (stating “1. Left shoulder injury; left arm injury; waist and hip injury” and “2. anemic; high blood pressure”).[3] On January 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II and for supplemental security income under Title XVI. Tr. 193, 197. On March 26, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 25.

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2009, and that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since October 10, 2008 (the amended alleged onset date of her disability). Tr. 18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from three severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease, (2) abdominal pain related to ovarian cysts and degenerative disc disease, and (3) right shoulder tendinopathy. Tr. 18. 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” Tr. 19. The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work. Tr. 19.

Specifically, the claimant is able to lift/carry/push/pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She is able to stand/walk for about six hours and sit up for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. She is unable to climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds, but is occasionally able to climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and use of moving machinery.

Tr. 19-20. Based on the RFC and the testimony of an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work but that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform . . . .” Tr. 23-24. Specifically, based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform the representative occupations of inspector, laundry worker, and garment sorter. Tr. 24. He therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 24. The ALJ’s decision has become the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 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 ...


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