United States District Court, D. Colorado
OPINION AND ORDER
S. Krieger United States District Judge.
MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff Corrine
Chancellor's appeal from the Commissioner of Social
Security's (the “Commissioner”) final
decision denying her application for Disability Insurance
Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 401-33, and Supplemental Security Income under
Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§1381-83c. Having considered the pleadings and the
record, the Court.
Chancellor filed a claim for disability insurance benefits
pursuant to Titles II and XVI in January 2014, asserting that
her disability began on December 15, 2012. After her claim
was initially denied, Ms. Chancellor filed a written request
for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (the
“ALJ”). This request was granted and a hearing
was held in December 2015.
ALJ's Decision applied the five-step social security
disability claim evaluation process: (1) Ms. Chancellor had
engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”)
after December 15, 2012; (2) she had the severe impairments of
schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), generalized anxiety
disorder, and personality disorder (not otherwise specified);
(3) she did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled any of the
impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App'x
1; and (4) Ms. Chancellor had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels with various limitations, and that
with this RFC, she could perform her past relevant work as a
laboratory assistant. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that
she was not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
Appeals Council denied Ms. Chancellor's request for
review of the Decision, making the Decision the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial
review. Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th
Cir. 2011). The Appeals Council also considered additional
materials submitted by Ms. Chancellor and concluded that
“the additional evidence did not provide a basis for
changing the Administrative Law Judge's decision.”
(#11-2, at p. 3.) Accordingly, the newly
submitted materials are now part of the record on this
appeal. Chambers v. Barnhart, 389 F.3d. 1139 (10th
Cir 2004) (citing Odell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855
(10th Cir 1994)).
Chancellor's appeal was timely brought, and this Court
exercises jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final
decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Chancellor asserts two principal arguments. First, she
contends that the Decision improperly concluded that she had
engaged in SGA because a significant portion of the income
identified in the Decision actually was a subsidy unrelated
to the value of the work that she performed. As a subsidy, it
should not have been considered in determining whether Ms.
Chancellor was engaged in SGA. Second, she argues that at
Step 4 stage of the analysis, the ALJ improperly gave
less-than-controlling weight to the opinions of her treating
Relevant Material Facts
Chancellor claims that she due to disabled by a number of
mental disorders, including a generalized anxiety disorder,
personality disorder and a schizoaffective disorder (bipolar
type) that has caused her to experience a number of psychotic
breaks. She claims the onset of this disability occurred on
or before December 15, 2012. As a result of her mental
illness, she has been hospitalized numerous times since May
2008, most recently in 2013 and 2014 in response to episodes
of suicidal ideation. Ms. Chancellor was prescribed
medication beginning in 2008 (at first, Zyprexa, Risperdal
and Invega, and later, Lamictal, Seroquel and Metformin). She
adheres to her medication regime relatively well, but
continues to experience disabling mental limitations.
the applicable period, Ms. Chancellor was a student at
Metropolitan State College/University (“MSU”),
where she majored in graphic design (digital arts). Ms.
Chancellor testified that she attended college off and on
from 2000 until 2015, with a break from school from 2004 to
2009. She graduated from MSU with a Bachelors of Fine Arts
degree in December 2014. Ms. Chancellor testified that she
did not pursue a graduate degree because she “barely
made it through” the undergraduate program.
2012 and 2013, Ms. Chancellor participated in a work-study
program. She first worked as a lab technician, and then as a
graphic designer. In the former capacity, she sat at a desk,
cleaned the labs, answered questions and filed papers. In the
latter, she made lab posters, edited training videos,
answered photoshop questions, took photos, edited scripts and
recorded voiceovers. Ms. Chancellor indicates that she was
able to balance her class load at MSU with her work-study job
because she was permitted time to study and do homework at
the job, especially when working as a lab technician.
multiple points in the record, Ms. Chancellor stressed that
she experienced performance difficulties at the job. She
stated that she was frequently absent or extremely tardy, she
worked at a much slower pace than her coworkers, she made
numerous mistakes, and she had significant difficulties
communicating with other people, especially including her
supervisors. At the hearing, Ms. Chancellor explained that
she was able to hold her work-study job despite these
difficulties because “it was really low stress, really
low expectations, it's like a really easy job, and I
still had symptoms….” She also suggested in her
disability application materials that “[i]t has always
felt like a few people helped or gave me extra slack.”
Subsequent to the Decision, Ms. Chancellor submitted a letter
stating that she received Americans with Disability Act
(“ADA”)/Rehabilitation Act accommodations from
MSU in both her academic classes and in her participation in
the work-study program. She also submitted letters from the
MSU administration officials to various professors informing
them of her disabled status and her need for accommodation in
those classes. However, there are no similar letters giving
such notice to work-study advisors. Ms. Chancellor's
eligibility to participate in work-study ended in December
2013, and she has not had gainful employment since.
Chancellor's earnings records reflect that she earned
$13, 171.77 in 2012, and $15, 969.22 in 2013 from the
work-study program. Ms. Chancellor generally was scheduled to
work thirty hours per week, and that she was only eligible
for the work-study program so long as she maintained a
minimum class load and achieved sufficient grades.
records and opinions:
records date from 2008 until December 2015. While Ms.
Chancellor was a student at MSU, she was treated at the
Mental Health Center of Denver and the Health Center at
Auraria. In addition, she regularly saw a university
psychologist. She reported suffering from paranoia and having
difficulty leaving her house, low energy levels and sleeping
problems that require her to get thirteen hours of sleep per
day in order to function on her medication. Medical records
indicate that she suffered from agitation, poor concentration
and excessive worry associated with her general anxiety
disorder. She also has substantial difficulty communicating
and getting along with others, which manifests in her
distrust and suspicion towards other people, a negative
self-image, acting impulsively, displaying excessive
emotionality, and instability in her relationships.
records in November 2013 reflect that Ms. Chancellor
voluntarily admitted herself due to an acute episode of
suicidal ideation during which she walked into traffic. Ms.
Chancellor reported that she also experienced high levels of
stress due a break-up with her boyfriend and the recent death
of a friend. Hospital records reflect that she reported
experiencing delusions and hallucinations, and she seemed
easily distracted and scored poorly on a memory test.
Hospital records for April 2014 hospitalization also reflect
admission due to Ms. ...