United States District Court, D. Colorado
MISTY D. WIGNALL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
KRISTEN L. MIX MAGISTRATE JUDGE
This matter is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record [#10],  filed March 16, 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 May 19, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#13] (the “Brief”). Defendant filed a Response [#14] in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#15]. 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 thirty on May 1, 2011, due to borderline personality disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome (“PTSD”), and anxiety. Tr. 248, 251. As a result, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II and an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI. Tr. 218-30. On July 18, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 31.
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2014, and that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since May 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. Tr. 22. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from four severe impairments: (1) bipolar II disorder, (2) PTSD, (3) alcohol dependence in remission, and (4) schizoaffective disorder. Tr. 22. However, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments which meet or medically equals “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. 23. The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels with three nonexertional limitations, i.e., that she is limited to: (1) “work requiring uninvolved 3 to 4 step tasks only;” (2) independent work “with no close coordination with others;” and (3) “only brief, incidental and occasional contact with the general public.” Tr. 24-25. 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 found that there are jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy which Plaintiff can perform, including the representative occupations of cheese sprayer, chicken farm laborer, and industrial cleaner. Tr. 29-30. He therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 31. 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 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. §§ 404.1520, 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 step or 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 her from ...