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Vance v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 6, 2017

JULIE VANCE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          MARCIA S. KRIEGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Plaintiff's Complaint (# 1), the Plaintiff's Opening Brief (# 17) and the Defendant's Response (# 19). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and the matter is remanded for further proceedings.

         I. JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over an appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Julie Vance seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner denying her claims for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under the Social Security Act. In January 2014, Ms. Vance filed for DIB and SSI, claiming she became disabled in September 2013, as amended. Tr. at 145, 336-50. After her application was denied at all administrative levels, she now appeals to this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         At the time of his alleged onset of disability, Ms. Vance was 51 years old. Tr. at 336. She was previously employed as a human resources assistant, sandwich maker, and administrative clerk. Tr. at 410.

         In August 2015, the ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to Ms. Vance. Tr. at 118-29. At step one, she found that Ms. Vance had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2013. Tr. at 121. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Vance had the severe impairment of degenerative joint disease of the right knee, status-post surgery. Tr. at 122. The ALJ further found that the following impairments were not severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, vertigo, uterine prolapse, depression, and cannabis use. Tr. at 122. At step three, she found that Ms. Vance did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled the presumptively disabling conditions listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Appendix 1. Tr. at 123. The ALJ further found that Ms. Vance had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with the following limitations: she can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, and ladders; she can occasionally crouch, kneel, and crawl; she can frequently balance and stoop; and she can maintain and sustain an ordinary routine and attendance. Tr. at 123. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Vance was capable of performing her past relevant work as an administrative clerk and assistant manager. Tr. at 127. The ALJ did made alternative findings at step five, stating that Ms. Vance could also perform the jobs of housekeeper, cafeteria attendant, and price marker. Tr. at 128.

         A single issue is raised - whether the ALJ erred in the step two determination because he did not employ the psychiatric review technique in assessing for her mental impairment as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Though the Court's review is de novo, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is free from legal error and the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is evidence a reasonable person would accept to support a conclusion, requiring “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The Court may not reweigh the evidence, it looks to the entire record to determine if substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Ms. Vance argues that the ALJ erred at step two by not conducting the psychiatric review technique for her mental impairment as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a.

         At step two, an ALJ is required to address all medically determinable impairments and rate their severity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). With regard to mental impairments, the Commissioner's regulations provide for a special technique - the psychiatric review technique, or PRT - that is meant to clarify and streamline the process of determining impairment severity. §§ 404.1520a(a), 416.920a(a). Under the technique, the ALJ must evaluate a claimant's symptoms and laboratory findings to determine whether a proposed mental impairment is medically determinable. §§ 404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1). If so, the ALJ then must specify the symptoms and laboratory findings that substantiate the impairment and ...


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