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Owen v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 24, 2017



          Craig B. Shaffer, United States Magistrate Judge

         Magistrate Judge Craig B. Shaffer 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 Kelly Yvonne Owen's (“Plaintiff”) application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). On May 23, 2016, the parties consented to the magistrate judge's jurisdiction to “conduct any and all further proceedings in this case, including the trial, and [to] order the entry of final judgment.” Doc. 13. Accordingly, the case was referred to this court on July 28, 2016. Doc. 19. The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed March 17, 2016) (Doc. 1), Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed June 22, 2016) (Doc. 15), Defendant's Response Brief (filed July 13, 2016) (Doc. 16), 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 September 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2010[1]. (See Social Security Administrative Record (hereinafter “AR”) at 10, 133). Plaintiff alleged that her ability to work was limited by fibromyalgia/osteoporosis, bursitis, emotional issues, numbness in her foot and leg, and back injuries and pain. See Id. at 151. Plaintiff was born on October 16, 1956, and was 55 years old on the date of her alleged disability onset. Id. at 16, 133. She completed the 12th grade and has previous work experience as a certified nursing assistant, a medical assistant, and a commercial cleaner. Id. at 50-54, 66. After her initial application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on August 12, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). See Id. at 36-72, 93-95. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing.

         On October 24, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision denying benefits. Id. at 7-22. The ALJ's opinion followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[2] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since September 19, 2012. Id. at 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) chronic alcohol abuse; (2) anxiety disorder; (3) depressive disorder; (4) fibromyalgia; and (5) degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 12-14.

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

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except for the following limitations: the ability to frequently perform all postural activities and the ability to perform only simple, routine, and repetitive work tasks consistent with unskilled jobs corresponding to jobs at SVP 1-2.

Id. at 14.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a commercial cleaner, which she performed at a “light” exertional level. Id. at 16. In the alternative, the ALJ also concluded that there were other jobs in the economy that Plaintiff could perform: (1) floor cleaner (unskilled medium work (SVP 2)); (2) janitor (unskilled medium work (SVP 2)); and (3) motel housekeeper (unskilled light work (SVP 2)). Id. at 17. Because there were a significant number of jobs that Plaintiff could perform, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not meet the definition of “disabled” for purposes of the Social Security Act. Id. Accordingly, Plaintiff's application for SSI was denied.

         Following the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 30-32. The Appeals Council denied her request on January 29, 2016. Id. at 1-5. 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 February 13, 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 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. SeeWatkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003) (“We will not reach the remaining issues raised by ...

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