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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 27, 2016

DANAE J. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Craig B. Shaffer United States Magistrate Judge.

         This action comes before the court pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq., for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Danae Williams' application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated June 12, 2015, this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge for all purposes. See Doc. 24. The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed October 10, 2014) [Doc. 1], Defendant's Answer (filed February 5, 2015) [Doc. 10], Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed April 1, 2015) [Doc. 14], Defendant's Response Brief (filed May 20, 2015) [Doc. 18], Plaintiff's Reply Brief (filed May 28, 2015) [Doc. 19], the entire case file, the administrative record, and the applicable law. For the following reasons, the court reverses and remands the Commissioner's Decision.

         BACKGROUND

         In June 2011, Danae Williams applied for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2009. Doc. 11-3 at 2. Ms. Williams alleged that her ability to work was limited by the following conditions: “herniated discs, ” “disc degeneration, ” “bulging discs, ” “bad hips, ” “early osteosrthritis [sic], ” and “muscle spasms.” Id. at 3. Claimant was born on November 19, 1986, and she was 22 years old on the onset date of her alleged disability. Id. She completed the 12thgrade and has previous work experience as a potato sorter and fast food worker. Id. at 9; Doc. 11-2 at 31-32. After the denial of Ms. Williams' initial application, she requested a hearing. Doc. 11-2 at 11. The presiding Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Richard J. Maddigan, continued the case on November 5, 2012, in order to obtain more substantive evidence and held a video hearing on March 19, 2013. Id.

         On March 25, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision that denied benefits to Ms. Williams. Id. at 8. The ALJ's Decision followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since June 29, 2011. Id. at 13. At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease; and (2) obesity. Id. Claimant's impairments related to her knees and wrists, as well as her depression, were found to be non-severe. Id. at 13. At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Gunn did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id.

         The ALJ found Ms. Gunn has 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except the claimant can occasionally lift 10 pounds; she can sit up to two hours in an eight hour workday; she can stand and walk up to six hours in an eight hour workday; she can frequently perform overhead reaching and continuous reaching otherwise; there are no limitations on handling, fingering, feeling, pushing and pulling; she can occasionally stoop, kneel, crawl; the claimant can occasionally tolerate heights and extreme cold; she can rarely bend, squat, or crouch. She requires a break every 15 to 30 minutes to alternate positions to mitigate pain.

Id. at 13-14. The ALJ concluded that although Claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, the evidence did not support a finding that she was as limited as she claimed. Id. at 14. The ALJ provided four reasons for finding that the allegations lacked sufficient credibility to support a finding of disability: (1) “the claimant went ten years without treatment for her cervical spine;” (2) “[s]he provided mixed information about the onset of her back and hip pain to her different providers;” (3) “there is little objective evidence to support the severity of her limitations;” and (4) “[i]n addition to her chronic narcotic use, the claimant appears to be prone to symptom magnification.” Id. at 14-15.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Ms. Williams is unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a potato sorter or a fast food worker “due to the requirement of frequent positional changes to mitigate back pain.” Id. at 17. The ALJ then found at step five that Claimant is able to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, namely, parking lot attendant (light work), information clerk (light work), store facility rental clerk (light work), call out operator (sedentary work), telequotations clerk (sedentary work), and surveillance system monitor (sedentary work). Id. at 18. In doing so, the ALJ relied on the vocational expert's (VE) testimony, which he determined to be consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). Id. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled under the Act. Id.

         Following the ALJ's decision, Ms. Williams requested review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 2. The Appeals Council denied her request on September 8, 2014. Id. As a result, the ALJ's Decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). On October 10, 2014, Ms. Williams properly filed this civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. Doc. 1; see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the [Commissioner] made after a hearing to which [s]he was a party … may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to [her] of notice of such decision ….”).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 her decision. 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) (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) (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 (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) (citation omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Ms. Williams contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to obtain an reasonable explanation from the VE regarding a discrepancy between his testimony and the job descriptions found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”); (2) basing disability decision on availability of six jobs identified by the VE that are precluded by the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) limitations; (3) failing to apply the exact limitations found in the opinion of the consulting examining physician, Dr. Easchief; (4) rejecting the opinion of Dr. Rendler, her treating physician, without stating valid reasons; and (5) failing to address the opinion of Dr. Valette on the existence of mental impairments and associated limitations. Doc. 14 at 4. Because we conclude the ALJ did not follow the correct legal standards in considering the VE's testimony, we ...


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