United States District Court, D. Colorado
R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge
This matter is before the Court on review of the Commissioner’s decision denying claimant Holly Kay Gonzalez’s application for Social Security disability benefits. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court reverses and remands the Commissioner’s decision.
I. Standard of Review
This appeal is based upon the administrative record and briefs submitted by the parties. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the role of the District Court is to examine the record and determine whether it “contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner’s] decision and whether the [Commissioner] applied the correct legal standards.” Rickets v. Apfel, 16 F.Supp.2d 1280, 1287 (D. Colo. 1998). A decision cannot be based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992).
Ms. Gonzalez, who was born on March 21, 1968, lives in Pueblo, Colorado. She has previously worked as grocery store cashier, but she has not engaged in any significant work activity since her amended alleged onset date of June 29, 2006. Ms. Gonzalez has a history of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.
A. Procedural History
On April 17, 2007 Ms. Gonzalez filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability due to severe mental impairments beginning on August 31, 2003. The claim was initially denied on August 15, 2007. Ms. Gonzalez then filed a request for a hearing, and a hearing was held in front of Administrative Law Judge Richard J. Maddigan on March 2, 2010. The ALJ issued a decision denying Ms. Gonzalez’s request for benefits on March 31, 2010. The Commission denied her request for review on May 17, 2012, and Ms. Gonzalez filed a timely appeal in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
On September 16, 2013 Senior Judge Wiley Y. Daniel vacated the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case for further action due to the ALJ’s failure to properly weigh the medical evidence. Pursuant to the District Court’s order, the ALJ held another hearing on February 24, 2014. At that hearing, Ms. Gonzalez amended her alleged onset date to June 29, 2006. On March 27, 2014 the ALJ issued a decision that once again denied Ms. Gonzalez’s requests for benefits. The Commission denied her second request for review on February 4, 2015 and Ms.
Gonzalez filed a timely appeal with this Court.
B. The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ issued his second unfavorable opinion after evaluating all of the evidence according to the Social Security Administration’s standard five-step process. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Gonzalez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) since her alleged onset date of June 29, 2006. R. at 514. Next, at step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Gonzalez had the following severe impairments: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and a history of alcoholism and illicit drug use. R. at 514. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Gonzalez did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. at 514. The ALJ then found that Ms. Gonzalez had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: simple, unskilled tasks, requiring limited interaction with supervisors, co-workers and the general public in a low stress work environment.” R. at 517. Turning to step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Gonzalez was not capable of performing any past relevant work. R. at 532. Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Gonzalez could perform. R. at 533. He thus concluded that Ms. Gonzalez had not been under a disability. R. at 534.
Ms. Gonzalez alleges that the ALJ committed several errors while determining her RFC. Specifically, Ms. Gonzalez contends the following: (1) the ALJ erred in the weight he assigned to the medical opinions, and (2) the ALJ’s RFC finding failed to account for moderate mental ...