United States District Court, D. Colorado
FLORENCE S. GARCIA MAESTAS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
KATHLEEN M TAFOYA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
matter comes before the court on review of the
Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff Florence S. Garcia
Maestas's application for (1) Disabled Widows Benefits
(“DWB”), (2) Disability Insurance Benefits
(“SSDI”) and (3) Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social
Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). Plaintiff filed her opening brief on August
22, 2016 (Doc. No. 13 [“Opening Br.”]), Defendant
filed her response on September 12 (Doc. No. 14
[“Resp.”]), and Plaintiff filed her reply on
September 26, 2016 (Doc. No. 17 [“Reply”]).
SSDI benefits are not presented for judicial review. See
Opening Br. at 2. In addition, because Plaintiff has largely
made arguments that are common to both the ALJ's January
20, 2015 decision (AR 12-31) and January 16, 2015 decision
(AR 32-55)-and since Defendant's response has followed a
similar approach (Resp. at 2)-the Court's analysis will
largely track these arguments and provide dual citations
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
decisions, the Commissioner found Plaintiff not disabled
under the Social Security Administration's regulations
(“SSA”). (AR 15-31, 35-51). In determining
disability, the ALJ used the sequential evaluation
process. At step one, the ALJ found
“claimant's earnings record documents no income
since the amended alleged disability onset date, and she
denies working since prior to that date (citing ex. 10D, 11D,
3E).” (AR 18, 38.) At step two, where the
“severity” of claimant's impairments is
assessed, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: obesity; varicose veins and/or thrombosis of the
bilateral lower extremities; depressive disorder; and anxiety
disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). (AR 19, 39.) None
of Plaintiff's severe impairments were found
presumptively disabling at step three. (AR 19-20, 39-40.)
to reaching step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and found
her capable of working as follows: “Physically, she is
able to lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently.
During an eight-hour workday, she is able to stand and/or
walk for two hours and sit for at least six hours. Mentally,
the claimant is able to: use judgment in making work
decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers
and work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work
setting. She should not perform any assembly-line work
(because of limitations in persistence, pace, and stress).
She cannot engage in work requiring intense, sustained
concentration.” (AR 20, 40). In making this assessment
the ALJ found Plaintiff not credible in relating the severity
of her impairments. He also found that since Plaintiff was
not credible, her medical evidence was not credible either.
(AR 28, 48.)
sought timely review before this Court.
person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act only if her physical and/or mental impairments preclude
him from performing both his previous work and any other
“substantial gainful work which exists in the national
economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). “When a
claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social
Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the
combined effect 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 Social Security 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
of the Commissioner's disability decision is limited to
determining whether the ALJ (1) applied the correct legal
standard and (2) whether the decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health and
Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992);
Brown v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 1194, 1196 (10th Cir.
1990). Substantial evidence is evidence a reasonable mind
would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
Brown, 912 F.2d at 1196. It requires more than a
scintilla but less than a preponderance. Hedstrom v.
Sullivan, 783 F.Supp. 553, 556 (D. Colo. 1992).
“Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by
other evidence in the record or constitutes mere
conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d
1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992).
“if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test,
there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of
substantial evidence.” Thompson v. Sullivan,
987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). The court
“meticulously examine[s] 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.” Wall v.
Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (citations
omitted). However, the court may not reweigh the evidence or
substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner.
Thompson, 987 F.2d at 1487.
Tenth Circuit observed in Baca v. Dep't of Health
& Human Servs., 5 F.3d 476, 480 (10th Cir. 1993),
the ALJ also has a basic duty of inquiry to “fully and
fairly develop the record as to material issues.”
Id. This duty exists even when the claimant is
represented by counsel. Id. at 480. Moreover, the
court may not affirm an ALJ's decision based on a
post-hoc rationale supplied in an appellate brief,
since doing so would “usurp essential functions
committed in the first instance to the administrative
process.” Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140,
1142 (10th Cir. 2004). Although the Tenth Circuit has applied
the doctrine of harmless error in administrative appeals, it
is only appropriate where “no reasonable administrative
factfinder, following the correct analysis, could have
resolved the factual matter in any other way.”
Id. at 1145.
raises several issues for consideration: (1) the ALJ's
RFC finding does not account for all of the relevant mental
limitations contained in the medical opinions; (2) the ALJ
erred in assessing Plaintiff's credibility, (3) the
ALJ's hypothetical questions to the vocational expert did
not precisely reflect Plaintiff's limitations; (3) the
ALJ's analysis engaged in cherry-picking evidence that
was consistent with the final outcome, while ignoring
evidence that was supportive of Plaintiff's claim; and
(4) that ALJ erred in application of treating physician
each of Plaintiff's arguments holds merit, the Court
finds arguments addressing the fourth issue most persuasive.
The ALJ Erred in Application of Treating ...