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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

October 14, 2016



          Craig B. Shaffer United States Magistrate Judge.

         Magistrate Judge Craig B. Shaffer This action comes before the court pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83(c) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Verda Louise Smith's (“Plaintiff”) application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Order of Reference dated March 16, 2016, this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge “for all purposes” pursuant to Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and D.C.Colo.LCivR 72.2(e). See Doc. 23. The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed September 16, 2015) (Doc. 1), Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed January 28, 2016) (Doc. 18), Defendant's Response Brief (filed February 25, 2016) (Doc. 19), Plaintiff's Reply (filed March 15, 2016) (Doc. 22), the entire case file, the administrative record, and applicable case law. For the following reasons, the court REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings.


         In November 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits, alleging a disability onset date of March 19, 2011. (See Social Security Administrative Record (hereinafter “AR”) at 246-52, 253-58). Plaintiff alleges she became disabled due to osteoarthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, bursitis, and depression. Id. at 297. Her medical records document complaints of - among other things - chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, depression, chest pain, wheezing, rashes, GERD, and abdominal cramps. Plaintiff was born on October 30, 1958, and was 52 years old on the date of her alleged disability onset. Id. at 51, 292. She obtained her GED and has past work experience in customer service. Id. at 298. After her initial application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on June 12, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). See id. at 57-113, 164-66, 167-69, 171-78.

         On September 12, 2014, the ALJ issued her decision denying benefits. Id. at 20-50. The ALJ's opinion followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since March 19, 2011. Id. at 36. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments included only her bipolar disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 39-41.

         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 a range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c). The claimant can lift, carry, push, and pull 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. She can stand for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and she can walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant's ability to sit is unlimited. The claimant can frequently climb ramps and stairs. She can tolerate frequent exposure to environmental irritants, dusts, and fumes. The claimant can have frequent interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.

Id. at 41.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as an income tax preparer. Id. at 50. The ALJ also found, alternatively, that Plaintiff could perform work as a bundle clerk (1, 100 Colorado; 103, 000 National), a grocery bagger (1, 700 Colorado; 168, 000 National), and a dishwasher (5, 900 Colorado; 286, 000 National). Id. at 51. Consequently, she found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act. Id. at 52. Accordingly, Plaintiff's application for disability benefits was denied.

         Following the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 14-15. The Appeals Council denied her request on August 3, 2015. Id. at 1-7. 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 October 3, 2014. 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 whether it 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 her evaluation of Plaintiff's fibromyalgia - 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 because they may be affected by the [administrative law judge's] treatment of the case on remand.”); see also Brown v. Barnhart, 182 F. App'x 771, 772 (10th Cir. 2006) (failure to find plaintiff's fibromyalgia severe at step two impacted the subsequent steps in the ALJ's analysis); Crider v. Barnhart, ...

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