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Masterson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 12, 2018

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


          Lewis T. Babcock LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Julie Masterson appeals the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“SSA”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. I have considered the parties' briefs (ECF Nos. 14-15, 17) and the administrative record (ECF No. 10) (“AR”). Oral argument would not materially assist me in determining this appeal.

         Ms. Masterson argues the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) made numerous mistakes when she determined that Ms. Masterson was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Among other arguments, she argues the ALJ failed to follow the Appeals Council's instructions, erred when she evaluated her residual functional capacity (“RFC, ”) and erred by failing to consider all of Ms. Masterson's impairments. I largely disagree with Ms. Masterson's arguments, and to the extent that the ALJ erred, any error was harmless. I accordingly AFFIRM SSA's decision.

         I. Background

         Ms. Masterson filed her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits with SSA in September 2012, alleging disability beginning on July 31, 2003. AR 362-66. After SSA initially denied her claim, AR 193-200, Ms. Masterson requested a hearing, AR233-235. The hearing took place on June 13, 2014, before an ALJ. AR 146-92. On August 1, 2014, the ALJ denied Ms. Masterson's claim, concluding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 202-24. Ms. Masterson asked SSA's Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. AR 311-12. On December 24, 2015, the Appeals Council granted review and remanded the case for further proceedings. AR 225-29. The ALJ held a second hearing on April 19, 2016. AR 107-35. On June 16, 2016, the ALJ again denied Ms. Masterson's claim. AR 72-96. Ms. Masterson again asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. AR 57-58. On October 16, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, AR 41-46, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of SSA, see Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). On July 7, 2016, Ms. Masterson timely filed this appeal. (ECF No. 1.) I have jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Legal Standards

         A. SSA's Five-Step Process for Determining Whether a Claimant Is “Disabled”

         A claimant is disabled under Title II of the Social Security Act if she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). SSA has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         At step one, SSA asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If she is, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. § 404.1520(b). At step two, SSA asks whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”-that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” § 404.1520(c). If she does not, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. If she does, SSA moves on to step three, where it determines whether the claimant's impairment(s) “meet or equal” one of the “listed impairments”-impairments so severe that SSA has determined that a claimant who has them is conclusively disabled without regard to the claimant's age, education, or work experience. § 404.1520(d). If not, SSA goes to step four. At step four, SSA determines the claimant's RFC-that is, what she is still able to do despite her impairments, and asks whether the claimant can do any of her “past relevant work” given that RFC. § 404.1520(e). If not, SSA goes to the fifth and final step, where it has the burden of showing that the claimant's RFC allows her to do other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(g). At this step, SSA's “grid rules” may mandate a finding of disabled or not disabled without further analysis based on the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2. In contrast with step five, the claimant has “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability at steps one through four.” Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. Standard for Reviewing SSA's Decision

         My review is limited to determining whether SSA applied the correct legal standards and whether its decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Williamson v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1097, 1098 (10th Cir. 2003). With regard to the law, reversal may be appropriate when SSA either applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate reliance on the correct legal standards. See Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). With regard to the evidence, I must “determine whether the findings of fact . . . are based upon substantial evidence, and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom. If they are so supported, they are conclusive upon the reviewing court and may not be disturbed.” Trujillo v. Richardson, 429 F.2d 1149, 1150 (10th Cir. 1970). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). I may not reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step analysis outlined above. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Masterson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 31, 2003 and met the insured requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2008. AR 78. At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Masterson had several severe impairments: obesity, bilateral knee osteoarthritis, mood disorder, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Id.. At step three, the ALJ concluded that during the relevant period, Ms. Masterson's impairments did not meet or equal any of the “listed impairments” that mandate a conclusive finding of disability under the social security regulations. AR 80-82. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Masterson had the following RFC during the relevant period:

[T]he claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). She could occasionally use foot controls and climb ramps and stairs. She could not climb ladders or scaffolds, kneel, crawl, or work at unprotected heights or with dangerous unprotected machinery. She was limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work with a maximum Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) of 2. She could have occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers but no interaction with the public as part of her job duties. She could tolerate few changes in the routine work setting.

AR 82. The ALJ determined that Ms. Masterson could not return to any past relevant work and proceeded to step five of the analysis. AR 87. At step five, the ALJ determined that considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers that Ms. Masterson could perform, including a price marker, office helper, and hand packager. AR 88-89. The ALJ accordingly concluded that Ms. Masterson was not disabled under the Social Security Act during the relevant period. AR 89.

         IV. Analysis

         A. Remand Instructions

         After Ms. Masterson's disability claim was initially denied by the ALJ in August 2014, she appealed to SSA's Appeals Council. AR 202-24, 311-12. The Appeals Council concluded the ALJ erred because her RFC determination failed to account for Ms. Masterson's difficulties with social functioning and remanded the case back to the ALJ. AR 227 (“Further consideration of the mental residual functional capacity, with a specific description of the social limitations, is warranted.”). The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to “[g]ive further consideration to the Claimant's maximum residual functional capacity [RFC] and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations.” Id. The Appeals Council also instructed the ALJ consider the impacts of the mental limitations on Ms. Masterson's ability to work:

If warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base (Social Security Ruling 83-14). The hypothetical questions should reflect the specific capacity/limitations established by the record as a whole. The Administrative Law Judge will ask the vocational expert to identify examples of appropriate jobs and state the incidence of such jobs in the national economy (20 CFR 404.1566). Further, before relying on the vocational expert evidence the ALJ will identify and resolve any conflicts between the occupational evidence provided by the vocational expert and the information in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and its companion publication, the Selected Characteristics Occupations (Social Security Ruling 00-4p).

AR 228.

         Ms. Masterson argues that the ALJ failed to follow the Appeals Council's remand instructions by: (1) failing to account for the physical limitations caused by her Meniere's disease (an inner ear disorder), hearing problems, neuropathy, and carpal tunnel syndrome; (2) failing to account for her mental impairments; (3) failing to adequately incorporate Ms. Masterson's mental limitations when questioning a vocational expert; and (4) failing to review the expanded record on appeal. Ms. Masterson's ...

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