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Bailey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 21, 2017

KAREN MARY BAILEY Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Karen Bailey appeals the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“SSA”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. I have considered the parties' briefs (ECF Nos. 13-15) and the administrative record (ECF No. 10) (“AR”). Oral argument would not materially assist me in determining this appeal.

         Ms. Bailey argues the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) improperly determined her work as an oil painter constituted “past relevant work” under the regulations and therefore wrongly determined she was not disabled. I agree that the ALJ erred when he determined Ms. Bailey had worked long enough as a painter for it to qualify as past relevant work. Accordingly, I REVERSE SSA's decision and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         Ms. Bailey filed her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits with SSA in September 2013, alleging disability beginning January 2010. AR 150-156. Ms. Bailey later amended the onset date to June 1, 2012. AR 54. After SSA initially denied her claim, AR 76-87, Ms. Bailey requested a hearing, AR 94-95. The hearing took place on August 26, 2014, before an ALJ. AR 51-75. On December 5, 2014, the ALJ denied Ms. Bailey's claim, concluding that Ms. Bailey was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 35-50. Ms. Bailey asked SSA's Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. AR 32-33. On May 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, AR 17-19, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of SSA, see Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). On July 7, 2016, Ms. Bailey timely filed this appeal. (ECF No. 1.) I have jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Legal Standards

         A. SSA's Five-Step Process for Determining Whether a Claimant Is “Disabled”

         A claimant is “disabled” under Title II of the Social Security Act if she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). SSA has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         At step one, SSA asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If she is, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. § 404.1520(b). At step two, SSA asks whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”-that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” § 404.1520(c). If she does not, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. If she does, SSA moves on to step three, where it determines whether the claimant's impairment(s) “meet or equal” one of the “listed impairments”-impairments so severe that SSA has determined that a claimant who has them is conclusively disabled without regard to the claimant's age, education, or work experience. § 404.1520(d). If not, SSA goes to step four. At step four, SSA determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)-that is, what she is still able to do despite her impairments, and asks whether the claimant can do any of her “past relevant work” given that RFC. § 404.1520(e). If not, SSA goes to the fifth and final step, where it has the burden of showing that the claimant's RFC allows her to do other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(g). At this step, SSA's “grid rules” may mandate a finding of disabled or not disabled without further analysis based on the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2. In contrast with step five, the claimant has “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability at steps one through four.” Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. Standard for Reviewing SSA's Decision

         My review is limited to determining whether SSA applied the correct legal standards and whether its decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Williamson v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1097, 1098 (10th Cir. 2003); White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 905 (10th Cir. 2001); Qualls v. Apfel, 206 F.3d 1368, 1371 (10th Cir. 2000). With regard to the law, reversal may be appropriate when SSA either applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate reliance on the correct legal standards. See Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). With regard to the evidence, I must “determine whether the findings of fact . . . are based upon substantial evidence, and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom. If they are so supported, they are conclusive upon the reviewing court and may not be disturbed.” Trujillo v. Richardson, 429 F.2d 1149, 1150 (10th Cir. 1970). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). I may not reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis outlined above. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Bailey had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date and met the insured requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2013. AR 40. At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Bailey had one severe impairment: lumbar degenerative disc disease. AR 41. At step three, the ALJ concluded that during the relevant period, Ms. Bailey's impairments did not meet or equal any of the “listed impairments” that mandate a conclusive finding of disability under the social security regulations. AR 41-42. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Bailey had the following RFC:

[T]he claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop ...

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