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Mendiola v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 30, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner's decision denying claimant Manuel B. Mendiola's application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court reverses and remands the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Standard of Review.

         This appeal is based upon the administrative record and the parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the District Court examines the record and determines whether it contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In addition, reversal may be appropriate if the Commissioner applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate that the correct legal standards have been followed. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1019.

         II. Background.

         Mr. Mendiola is 51 years old. See R. 230. He has a high school education and has worked a variety of jobs in his life, including as a nurse's aide, painter, cashier, lime kiln operator, cleanup worker, cook, and, most recently, bartender. R. 280, 295-96.

         In August 2008 Mr. Mendiola suffered a heart attack and had quintuple bypass surgery. R. 379, 394. He has experienced intermittent chest pain and related symptoms since the surgery. See, e.g., R. 429, 616, 657, 1155. In addition, he has diabetes and endures occasional abdominal pain, low back pain, and difficulty breathing. See, e.g., R. 440, 690, 1116, 1170.

         Mr. Mendiola is also an alcoholic. R. 396. On average he binge-drinks a twelve-pack of beer and a pint of liquor once or twice a week. R. 44-45. He appears to use alcohol to treat his chronic mild depression. R. 396-97. Unfortunately, Mr. Mendiola's alcohol use has aggravated many of his other health problems. He has not complied with the medication regimen for his heart condition because he has been spending his copay money on alcohol. See R. 431, 469, 657, 1154-55, 1157-59. His alcohol use exacerbates his diabetes. R. 397. And his high alcohol intake is a risk factor for his abdominal issues. R. 1146.

         A. Procedural History.

         On September 21, 2012 Mr. Mendiola applied for supplemental security income benefits. R. 276. On November 1, 2012 he applied for disability insurance benefits. R. 230. Both claims alleged disability beginning August 19, 2011. R. 234, 241. The claims were initially denied on April 8, 2013. R. 140. Mr. Mendiola requested reconsideration and the claims were again denied on June 11, 2013. R. 155-56. Mr. Mendiola then requested a hearing, which was held in front of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stanley R. Hogg on August 13, 2014. R. 30. At the hearing Mr. Mendiola asked to amend his alleged onset date to be five days later than originally averred, moving that date to August 24, 2011. R. 35. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on October 23, 2014. R. 11. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Mendiola's request for review on February 10, 2016, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. R. 1. Mr. Mendiola filed a timely appeal in this Court. ECF No. 1.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision after evaluating the evidence according to the SSA's standard five-step process. R. 11-22. First, he found that Mr. Mendiola had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of August 24, 2011. R. 13. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Mendiola had the severe impairments of coronary artery disease, hypertension, pancreatitis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes mellitus, and degenerative disc disease. R. 14. The ALJ found Mr. Mendiola's mental impairments of depression and alcohol abuse to be nonsevere. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Mendiola did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 17.

         The ALJ then found that Mr. Mendiola retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform unskilled and low semi-skilled light work provided he is only occasionally required to climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl and he avoids environments that are very hot, very cold, or involve continuous exposure to dust, smoke, fumes, pollutants, or chemicals. R. 16. The ALJ determined that Mr. Mendiola is capable of performing his past relevant work at step four. R. 22. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Mendiola was not disabled. Id.

         III. ...

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