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Mares v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 11, 2017

EUGENE R. MARES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER VACATING DECISION OF ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

          William J. Martínez United States District Judge

         This is a Social Security benefits appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Eugene R. Mares (“Mares”) challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), partially denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Although Mares claimed disability beginning on August 22, 2008, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) ruled that Mares first became disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act on November 7, 2012, and awarded benefits from that date forward. This appeal followed, challenging only the ALJ's conclusion that Mares was not disabled before November 7, 2012.

         For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision that Mares was not disabled before November 7, 2012 is vacated and this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mares was born in 1949, and was 59 years old on the alleged onset date of August 22, 2008. (Administrative Record (“R.”) (ECF No. 8) at 294.) He graduated from high school and has an associate's degree, with a certificate in computer-assisted drafting, and he has also been certified as a home inspector. (R. at 28, 71.) In the last fifteen years, Mares has worked as an architectural draftsman and a construction estimator for concrete projects. (R. at 28, 371.)

         Mares applied for disability insurance benefits on March 31, 2009. (R. at 294.) He claimed he is disabled due to head and neck injuries, memory problems, and diabetes. (R. at 362.) His application was initially denied on November 17, 2009. (R. at 99.) Mares requested and received a hearing in front of an ALJ, William Musseman. (R. at 34-50.) On December 1, 2010, ALJ Musseman issued a decision finding Mares not disabled. (R. at 103-14.) Mares appealed to the Social Security Appeals Council, which granted review, vacated ALJ Musseman's decision, and remanded with instructions for further development of the record and a new decision. (R. at 119-21.) ALJ Musseman held a new hearing (R. at 51-61), and then issued a new decision on January 25, 2013, this time concluding that Mares became disabled on September 1, 2010, but not before (R. at 127-36). Mares appealed the unfavorable portion of this ruling to the Appeals Counsel, which again vacated the entire decision and remanded with instructions for further development and analysis, and also directed that a new ALJ be assigned. (R. at 145-48.)

         The new ALJ, Kathryn D. Burgchardt, convened a third hearing. (R. at 62-98.)[1]At the hearing, the ALJ made clear that it was her task to reevaluate Mares's disability application completely anew, with no deference to any previous conclusion, including the conclusion that Mares became disabled at least as of September 1, 2010. (R. at 65-68.) On February 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process.[2]

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mares had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of August 22, 2008. (R. at 17.) Although Mares had earned money since that date through self-employment as a home inspector and architectural draftsman, the ALJ concluded that his earnings were not enough to qualify as “substantial gainful activity” under the relevant regulation. (Id.)

         At step two, the ALJ found as follows with regard to Mares's severe impairments:

Since the alleged onset date of disability, August 22, 2008, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: status post cervical fusion at ¶ 5-6; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and status post head injury[.] Beginning on the established onset date of disability, November 7, 2012, the claimant has had the following severe impairments: status post cervical fusion at ¶ 5-6; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; status post head injury and memory impairment.

(Id. (citation omitted).)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Mares's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal any of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations. (R. at 20.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Mares's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ concluded that Mares's RFC before November 7, 2012 was as follows:

capacity to perform light work as defined in [the applicable regulation] except the claimant was able to lift or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk, with normal breaks, for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit, with normal breaks, for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; perform pushing and pulling motions with the upper and lower extremities within the weight restrictions given. The claimant should have avoided unprotected heights and moving machinery. The claimant was able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop and crouch and should [have] never climb[ed] ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He was able to frequently balance, kneel and occasional[ly] . . . reach [overhead] with the bilateral upper extremities.

(R. at 20-21.) Then, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Mares could have resumed his previous work as an architectural draftsman and construction estimator, up until November 7, 2012. (R. at 27.) Thus, the ALJ found Mares “not disabled” before that point, and ...


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