United States District Court, D. Colorado
ORDER REVERSING DISABILITY DECISION AND REMANDING TO
E. Blackburn United States District Judge.
matter before me is plaintiff's
Complaint [#1],  filed October 22, 2015,
seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying
plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under
Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401,
et seq. I have jurisdiction to review the
Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §
matter has been fully briefed, obviating the need for oral
argument. I reverse and remand.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
alleges that he is disabled as a result of chronic abdominal
pain of unknown etiology, degenerative changes of the lumbar
spine statue post cervical fusion, anxiety, and a cognitive
disorder. After his application for disability insurance
benefits was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing before an
administrative law judge. This hearing was held on May 9,
2015. At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was 54 years old.
He has a college degree with additional post-graduate work
and past relevant work experience as a senior systems
engineer. He has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since September 29, 2011, his alleged date of onset.
found plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled
to disability insurance benefits. Although the evidence
established plaintiff suffered from severe physical
impairments, the judge concluded the severity of those
impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in
the social security regulations. Plaintiff's anxiety was
found not to constitute a severe impairment, and his
cognitive disorder was determined not to constitute medically
determinable impairment at all. The ALJ found plaintiff had
the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of
light work. As those restrictions were not inconsistent with
plaintiff's past relevant work, the ALJ found him not
disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff
appealed this decision to the Appeals Council. The Council
affirmed, refusing to consider new evidence plaintiff
submitted on appeal on the ground that it related to a period
of time outside that considered by the ALJ. Plaintiff then
filed this action in federal court.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act only if his physical and/or mental impairments preclude
him from performing both him previous work and any other
“substantial gainful work which exists in the national
economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). “When a
claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social
Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the
combined effects of the impairments in making a disability
determination.” Campbell v.
Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th
Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However,
the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of
impairments does not require a finding that an individual is
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. To be
disabling, the claimant's condition must be so
functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful
activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See
Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir.
Commissioner has established a quinquepartite sequential
evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is
1. The ALJ must first ascertain whether the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is
working is not disabled regardless of the medical findings.
2. The ALJ must then determine whether the claimed impairment
is “severe.” A “severe impairment”
must significantly limit the claimant's physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities.
3. The ALJ must then determine if the impairment meets or
equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix
1 of the regulations.
4. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a
listed impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant can perform his past work despite any limitations.
5. If the claimant does not have the residual functional
capacity to perform her past work, the ALJ must decide
whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and
substantial work in the economy. This determination is made
on the basis of the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f). See also Williams v.
Bowen 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988).
The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a
disability in the first four steps of this analysis.
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S.Ct.
2287, 2294 n.5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden then shifts
to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of
performing work in the national economy. Id. A
finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any
point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates
the analysis. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human
Services, 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).
of the Commissioner's disability decision is limited to
determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal
standard and whether the decision is supported by substantial
evidence. Hamilton v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir.
1992); Brown v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 1194, 1196
(10th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is evidence
a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion. Brown, 912 F.2d at 1196. It requires
more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of the
evidence. Hedstrom v. Sullivan, 783 F.Supp. 553, 556
(D. Colo. 1992). “Evidence 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). Further,
“if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test,
there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of