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Carrera v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 17, 2017

CARYLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Laura Carrera's appeal of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB). (Doc. # 11.) Exercising jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court affirms the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

         I. BACKGROUND

         In June 2014, Plaintiff protectively applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning in June 2012, due to a number of impairments. (Doc. # 9-5, p. 2; # 9-6, p. 21.) On September 23, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for DIB following a hearing. (Doc. # 9-3, p. 17-37.) In December 2015, the Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's denial and remanded for further evaluation of Plaintiff's mental and social limitations in consideration of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). (Id. at 43-45.) The Council also ordered the ALJ to evaluate the opinion of the nontreating physician Dr. Lynne Gillick, Psy. D. (Id. at 45.)

         On remand, the ALJ held a new hearing, during which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Doc. # 9-2, p. 65-77.) The ALJ then issued another unfavorable decision on May 31, 2016, wherein the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe physical and mental impairments but was not disabled or entitled to DIB because she retained the RFC to perform unskilled, sedentary work and jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 12-29.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's May 31, 2016, decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 2-4.)


         Review of the ALJ's disability finding is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district 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 her decision. 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). 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.” Id.


         “Disability” is defined in the Social Security Act as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment....” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Act further provides that an individual “shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). The steps of the evaluation are whether: (1) the claimant is currently working; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the claimant's impairment meets an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) the impairment precludes the claimant from doing her past relevant work; and (5) the impairment precludes the claimant from doing any work. Trimiar v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326, 1329 (10th Cir. 1992) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)(f)). 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         In this case, the ALJ proceeded through the first three steps in the sequential process. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff (1) had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 15, 2012, the alleged onset”; (2) suffered from “the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder/affective disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), disorders of the spine, obesity, and right ankle tendonitis”; and (3) did not have an “impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments.” (Doc. # 9-2, pp. 14-16.)

         Before addressing the fourth step, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and concluded that Plaintiff had the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except as follows:

The [Plaintiff] can perform unskilled work consistent with a Specific Vocational Preparation [SVP] level of two or less as defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The [Plaintiff] can perform work with occasional ...

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