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Jarrell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 26, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          R. Brooke Jackson, United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's decision denying claimant Robert B. Jarrell's application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         This appeal is based upon the administrative record and the parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the District Court examines the record and determines whether it contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In addition, reversal may be appropriate if the Commissioner applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate that the correct legal standards have been followed. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1019.


         Mr. Jarrell was born in 1952 and is now 65 years old. See R. 96. He has not completed any formal education beyond the eleventh grade. R. 98, 283. Mr. Jarrell's work history includes time spent as a delivery driver, a production supervisor on a manufacturing line, a painter, and a carpenter. R. 98-101, 342. He was most recently employed as a deck builder in Ogden, Utah but has not been employed since that project ended on August 1, 2013. R. 98, 282. Mr. Jarrell moved from Utah to Colorado soon after the job ended. R. 282. Initially homeless and sleeping on the streets of Fort Collins, Mr. Jarrell has since secured low-income housing in Denver. R. 97, 246, 314.

         In 1974 Mr. Jarrell was injured in an auto accident and received treatment for a back injury. R. 373. Nearly twenty years later he was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder. Id. In 2010 Mr. Jarrell was diagnosed with gout. R. 413-14. His health history also reflects alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine use. R. 354, 375. Significantly, since 2000 Mr. Jarrell has suffered from Dupuytren's contractures that restrict his ability to extend the fourth and fifth digits of his left hand and the fifth digit of his right. See, e.g., R. 102, 390. In 2009 surgery was performed to alleviate the contractures in Mr. Jarrell's left hand. R. 421-22. The surgery did not entirely resolve the contractures in his hand and a 2015 medical examination notes a “gradual reoccurrence” of symptoms. R. 390. Mr. Jarrell has chosen not to undergo subsequent surgeries due to the fact that any solution would be only a “temporary fix” for the contractures. R. 102, 391.

         A. Procedural History.

         On November 1, 2013[1] Mr. Jarrell applied for disability benefits and social security insurance, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2013. R. 241. Both claims were initially denied on April 21, 2014. R. 150. Mr. Jarrell filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 20, 2014. R. 154. His hearing before ALJ Patricia E. Hartman was to be held on October 6, 2015, but in response to Mr. Jarrell's claim that the medical record was incomplete, the ALJ postponed the hearing to December 1, 2015. R. 174, 347-48, 208. Before the hearing Mr. Jarrell requested that the ALJ order a consultative examination specific to his Dupuytren's contractures. R. 351. Mr. Jarrell pointed to newly-received correspondence from a doctor recommending such an exam. Id. Because the ALJ found the record already complete with a consultative report, she denied Mr. Jarrell's request for an additional consultative exam. R. 74.

         The hearing was held before the ALJ on December 1, 2015. R. 92. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on February 2, 2016. R. 71-91. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Jarrell's request for review on January 30, 2017, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. R. 1. Mr. Jarrell then filed a timely appeal in this Court.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision after evaluating the available evidence according to the SSA's standard five-step process. R. 71-91. First, she found that Mr. Jarrell had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2013, the alleged onset date of his disability. R. 77. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Jarrell had the severe impairments of Dupuytren's contractures and a history of polysubstance abuse in partial remission. R. 25. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Jarrell did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 79.

         The ALJ then found that Mr. Jarrell retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels subject to the following nonexertional restrictions: he can finger unlimitedly but can only engage in fingering that requires the use of the first three digits on each hand for actual manipulation with the last two digits to be used only for support; he cannot climb ladders and scaffolds; he cannot work in extreme cold; he cannot work at unprotected heights; and he cannot work with dangerous unprotected machinery. R. 79- 80.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Jarrell is unable to perform any past relevant work. R. 85. At step five, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Jarrell can perform. R. 86. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Jarrell is not disabled. R. 87.


         Mr. Jarrell contends that the ALJ erred in her assessment of his physical condition by: (1) failing to adequately develop the record regarding his Dupuytren's contractures; and (2) improperly weighing medical opinion evidence about his lifting limitations and his limitations in social functioning. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Development ...

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