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O'Dell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 27, 2016




         This action comes before the court pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Elizabeth W. O'Dell's (“Plaintiff”) application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to the Order reassigning the case, dated December 30, 2015, this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge for all purposes pursuant to D.C.Colo.LCivR 72.2 and Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Doc. 20. The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed March 27, 2015) (Doc. 1), Defendant's Answer (filed September 8, 2015) (Doc. 10), Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed November 12, 2015) (Doc. 16), Defendant's Response Brief (filed December 14, 2015) (Doc. 17), Plaintiff's Reply Brief (filed December 29, 2015) (Doc. 18), the entire case file, the administrative record, and the applicable law. For the following reasons, the court REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings.


         In April 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits and alleged that she became disabled in September 2010. (See Social Security Administrative Record (hereinafter “AR”) at 11, 112-18). Plaintiff alleged that her ability to work was limited by diabetes, carpal tunnel, peripheral artery disease, leg problems, and sleep apnea. See id. at 143. Plaintiff was born on September 10, 1958, and was 52 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset. Id. at 31, 112. She is a high school graduate and has received training as a real estate agent. Id. at 144. She has past work experience as a real estate agent, gas station cashier, truck driver, and nursing home cook. Id. After her initial application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on August 23, 2013, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). See id. at 27-55, 74-75.

         On October 30, 2013, the ALJ issued his decision denying benefits. Id. at 8-26. The ALJ's opinion followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful employment from September 11, 2010, through March 31, 2013.[2] Id. at 13. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) diabetes mellitus; and (2) peripheral vascular disease. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 15-16.

         The ALJ then assessed the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; and never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant could perform frequent handling bilaterally and frequent fingering bilaterally.

Id. at 16.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that through the date last insured, Plaintiff was able to perform three positions from her past relevant work. Id. at 21. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not meet the definition of “disabled” for purposes of the Social Security Act. Id. at 22. Accordingly, Plaintiff's application for DIB was denied.

         Following the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 7. The Appeals Council denied her request on January 22, 2015. Id. at 1-6. The decision of the ALJ then became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Plaintiff filed this action on March 27, 2015. Doc. 1. The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because it may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in his decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted). Moreover, “[e]vidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992) (internal citation omitted). The court will not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070 (internal citation omitted). Nevertheless, “if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993) (internal citation omitted).


         Plaintiff raises numerous arguments on appeal. One of those arguments - the ALJ erred in his evaluation of a treating source opinion - is sufficient on its own to warrant reversal. Therefore, the court declines to address the others as they may be impacted on remand. See Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003) (“We will not reach the remaining issues raised by appellant ...

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