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McDonald v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 20, 2017

KUM SUN MCDONALD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.

          ORDER

          Kristen L. Mix, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the Court[2] on the Social Security Administrative Record [#11], [3] filed June 17, 2016, in support of Plaintiff's Complaint [#1] seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. On August 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#18] (the “Brief”). Defendant filed a Response [#19] in opposition, and Plaintiff filed a Reply [#24]. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). The Court has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleges that she became disabled at the age of fifty-seven on May 1, 2011. Tr. 15, 24.[4] On October 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II. Tr. 15. On May 9, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 25.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2015, and that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since May 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. Tr. 17. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from two severe impairments: (1) “osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees status post arthroscopies” and (2) “lumbar disorder status post laminectomy.” Tr. 17. However, the ALJ also found that these impairments, individually or in combination, do not meet or medically equal “the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).” Tr. 18-19. The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as follows:

[S]he can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8 hour workday and push/pull within stated lift/carry limitations. She can occasionally operate foot and hand controls and reach overhead. The claimant can frequently handle, finger, and feel. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but cannot climb ladders and scaffolds. She cannot kneel and crawl or work at unprotected heights or with vibrating tools.

Tr. 19. Based on the RFC and the testimony of an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as an electronics assembler or as a furniture cleaner, but that she was able to perform other work, including the representative occupation of semi-conductor assembler. Tr.24-25. She therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 25. The ALJ's decision has become the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981.

         II. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         Pursuant to the Act:

[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a “disability.” A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, “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.”

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a claimant is disabled if he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying disabling impairment must be demonstrated by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic” findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).

         “When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act. To be disabling, the claimant's condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

         The Court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner by examining the administrative record and determining “whether the [ALJ's] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However, the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Harper v. Colvin, 528 F. App'x 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court “may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if the Court may have “made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).

         A. ...


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