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Coleman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 6, 2018

TERRI COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          PHILIP A. BRIMMER United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint [Docket No. 1] filed by plaintiff Terri Coleman on April 23, 2016. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On May 3, 2013, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Act. R. at 10. Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since April 4, 2013. Id. After an initial administrative denial of her claim, plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 30, 2014. Id. On November 21, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. Id. at 10-24. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild neurological disorder, adjustment disorder with depressed mood, and mild degenerative disc disease within the lumbar spine with additional references to sciatica. Id. at 12-13. The ALJ concluded that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations' listed impairments, id. at 14, and found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant is able to lift, carry, push and/or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant is able to stand and/or walk about six hours out of an eight-hour workday. The claimant has no limitations regarding sitting. The claimant is able to frequently climb ramps and stairs as well as balance. The claimant does not require the use of an assistive device for ambulation. The claimant should not work around hazardous heights or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant cannot be required to operate machinery involving dangerous mechanical parts. The claimant is able to understand, remember and carry out tasks learned in up to six months.

Id. at 16. Based upon this RFC, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was incapable of performing her past relevant work as a substance abuse counselor. Id. at 21. However, the ALJ, in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to perform the requirements of office helper, ticket taker, and mail clerk. Id. at 22.

         On March 2, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's denial of her claim. Id. at 1. Given the Appeals Council's denial, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in her decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). Moreover, “[e]vidence 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). The district court will not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine 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.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, “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).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 ...


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