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Spickard v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [*] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying claimant Ryan M. Spickard's application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title 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.


         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). Reversal may also 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.


         Mr. Spickard was born in 1979 and is now 38 years old. See R. 170. He is a high school dropout, quitting after tenth grade when he began to display symptoms of a psychological disorder. R. 175, 217, 285. After leaving high school he worked brief stints in a restaurant and a hospital, but he was unable to hold a job because of his mental health issues. R. 180, 217, 277. He has not worked in the twenty years since then. R. 164-65, 175.

         In 2001 Mr. Spickard was hospitalized for a psychotic experience and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which doctors later characterized more precisely as schizoaffective disorder. R. 217, 281. Not long afterward he was found to be disabled and was awarded Supplemental Security Income benefits. See R. 170, 276. To help manage his symptoms, he began self-medicating by smoking marijuana regularly in addition to taking his prescription medications. R. 286.

         In roughly January 2009 Mr. Spickard stopped taking his medications-including, at one time or another, Abilify, Ativan, Celexa, Geodon, Lamictal, Paxil, Prozac, Risperdal, Xanax, Zoloft, and Zyprexa-because he found them ineffective and did not think they were worth their negative side effects. See R. 218, 285, 297, 375-76, 384. Later that year, in October 2009, he attempted suicide and was admitted to a hospital. R. 373, 376. He was discharged within days and prescribed Valium, but he stopped taking it after about a month because he developed a tolerance to its effects. R. 368, 382. A few months later he readmitted himself to the hospital after suffering severe panic attacks. R. 368. He began to take Zoloft around this time, but discontinued all medication again at some point in 2010. See R. 285, 366.

         Still off his medications, Mr. Spickard was incarcerated on charges of arson, burglary, and trespass in October 2011. R. 284, 286. His disability benefits were terminated at this time due to his incarceration status. See R. 172. In March 2012 he was evaluated by a psychologist and was found incompetent to stand trial. R. 291. He was reevaluated in June 2012 and was again found mentally incompetent. R. 400. He was then committed to a psychiatric hospital, apparently released, and readmitted in August 2012. See R. 387, 395. There he participated in structured group therapy and began taking the antipsychotic drug Latuda. R. 389-90. After a month of treatment he was found competent to stand trial and was discharged from the hospital. R. 394, 402.

         Mr. Spickard has been compliant with his mental health treatment since then. See R. 292-346. He has not used marijuana since he got arrested in 2011. R. 47. He now lives with his father and spends most of his time just “sitting at home.” R. 43, 186.

         A. Procedural History.

         On April 25, 2013 Mr. Spickard reapplied for Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2001. R. 170. The claim was initially denied on July 16, 2013. R. 82. Mr. Spickard requested a hearing, which was held in front of Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Patricia E. Hartman on May 29, 2014. R. 36. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on August 1, 2014. R. 23-31. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Spickard's request for review on March 30, 2016, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. R. 1. Mr. Spickard then filed a timely appeal in this Court.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision after evaluating the evidence according to the Social Security Administration's standard five-step process. First, she found that Mr. Spickard had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 25, 2013, his application date. R. 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Spickard had the severe impairments of schizoaffective disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and cannabis dependence.[1] R. 25. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Spickard 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. 25-26.

         The ALJ then found that Mr. Spickard retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels subject to the following nonexertional restrictions: he is limited to unskilled work involving simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; he cannot work at unprotected heights or with dangerous unprotected machinery; he cannot work at a production-rate pace (e.g., on an assembly line); and he can occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers, but he cannot interact with the public as part of his job. R. 26-29.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Spickard had no past relevant work. R. 30. At step five, she determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy Mr. Spickard could perform. R. 30. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Spickard was not disabled. R. 31.


         In essence, Mr. Spickard contends that the ALJ improperly weighed Dr. Wanstrath's and Dr. Rosenblum's opinions and erroneously found his subjective complaints not fully credible. The Court will address each issue in turn.

         A. Weighing Opinions.

         The ALJ gave “great weight” to Dr. Wanstrath's opinion and only “partial weight” to Dr. Rosenblum's opinion. R. 26, 29. Mr. Spickard takes issue with the ALJ's evaluation of these two opinions on the grounds that the ALJ misapplied the ...

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