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Torres v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 12, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          William J. Martinez United States District Judge

         This is a Social Security benefits appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Natasha R. Torres (“Torres”) challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her application for supplemental security income. The denial was affirmed by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who ruled that Torres was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. This appeal followed.

         For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is vacated and this case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Torres was born in 1976 and was 36 years old on the alleged onset date of March 22, 2013. (Administrative Record (“R.”) (ECF No. 11) at 11, 60.)[2] Torres received her GED and took some community college classes. (R. at 73, 158-60.) In the fifteen years preceding the alleged onset date, she worked as a food demonstrator, “cashier checker, ” customer service clerk, restaurant cashier, and hostess. (R. at 21, 72-73.)

         Torres applied for supplemental security income on April 16, 2013, with a protective filing date of March 22, 2013. (R. at 131.) She claimed that she is disabled due to the following conditions: multiple spinal degenerative conditions, anxiety, depression, osteoarthritis, hyperthyroidism, and chronic pain syndrome. (R. at 60.) Her application was denied on October 17, 2013. (R. at 74.) Torres requested and received a hearing in front of an ALJ, Janice E. Shave. (R. at 29.) On January 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process.[3]

         At step one, the ALJ found that Torres had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 22, 2013. (R. at 13.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Torres suffered from “the following severe impairments: obesity, asthma, degenerative disc disease, central spinal canal stenosis, osteoarthritis, and chronic pain syndrome.” (Id. (citation omitted).)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Torres's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal any of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations. (R. at 15.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Torres's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ concluded that Torres has the RFC

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) with a sit-stand option at approximately 30-minute intervals to allow [for] an opportunity to shift positions or to alternate from sitting to standing. The claimant would not be off task more than 1 minute during these transitions. She can never crouch, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can occasionally balance without the use of a handheld assistive device, stoop, and kneel climb stairs and ramps;[4] she can frequently feel with the right upper extremity. The claimant is capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions, but she cannot perform work[] which requires directing others, abstract thought, or planning. She is capable of up to occasional, minimal, brief, non-transactional interaction with the public. The claimant can have occasional non-team interaction with coworkers and occasional interaction with supervisors.

(R. at 15.) Then, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Torres could not perform any of her past relevant work in light of this RFC. (R. at 21.)

         At step five, the ALJ found that Torres's RFC permitted her to work as a document preparer, toy stuffer, and printed circuit board screener, and that all of those jobs exist in sufficient numbers in the regional and national economy. (R. at 21-22.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ found that Torres was not entitled to Social Security benefits. (R. at 22.) Torres appealed to the Socials Security Appeals Council (R. at 7), which denied review (R. at 1). Torres then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's January 14, 2015 decision. (ECF No. 1.)


         The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record. Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006). ...

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