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Rieley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 7, 2016

SANDYNE FER RIELEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER VACATING DECISION OF ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

William J. Martinez United States District Judge.

This is a Social Security benefits appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Sandyne Rieley (“Rieley”) challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her application for supplemental security income benefits and disability insurance benefits. The denial was affirmed by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who ruled that Rieley was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. This appeal followed.

For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ’s decision is vacated and this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.

I. BACKGROUND

Rieley was born on January 30, 1953, and was 54 years old on the alleged onset date of February 17, 2007. (Administrative Record (“R.”) (ECF No. 15) at 131.) Rieley graduated from high school and has, in the last fifteen years, worked as a youth ministry director in two different Catholic parishes. (R. at 42-47, 58-59.)

Rieley applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on May 23, 2012. (R. at 131.) She claimed she is disabled due to the persisting results of a February 17, 2007 car accident, namely, traumatic brain injury, neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, and rib pain on the left side of her body. (R. at 170.) Her application was denied on December 5, 2012. (R. at 74-75.) Rieley requested and received a hearing in front of an ALJ, Mark R. Dawson. (R. at 39.) On December 5, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Commissioner’s five-step sequential evaluation process.[1]

At step one, the ALJ found that Rieley had engaged in substantial gainful activity after her claimed disability onset date of February 17, 2007. Specifically, she had continued to work as a youth ministry director until the end of 2011. (R. at 21.) The ALJ therefore chose to consider Rieley’s application only as it relates to the time period beginning January 1, 2012. (Id.) Since that date, the ALJ found that Rieley has not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (Id.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Rieley suffered from “the following severe impairments: (1) Musculoskeletal strains and sprains of the neck and shoulders; (2) Obesity; and (3) Lumbar degenerative disc disease.” (R. at 22.)

At step three, the ALJ found that Rieley’s impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in the Social Security regulations. (R. at 23.)

Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Rieley’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ concluded that Rieley has the RFC “to perform the full range of light work.” (R. at 24.) Then, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Rieley could continue to perform her past relevant work as a youth ministry director (categorized by a vocational expert as a “pastoral assistant”). (R. at 27.)

Given this conclusion, the ALJ did not need to reach step five, but found at step four alone that Rieley was not entitled to Social Security benefits. (R. at 28.) Rieley appealed to the Social Security Appeals Council. (R. at 14.) Rieley there submitted new evidence of a foot condition (described in more detail below) which she claims prevents her from performing the full range of light work. (R. at 209-11.) The Appeals Council denied review, stating that it “considered” the new evidence but found no reason to reevaluate the ALJ’s decision. (R. at 1-2.) Rieley then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ’s December 5, 2013 decision. (ECF No. 1.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record. Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In reviewing the Commissioner’s decision, the Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006). ...


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