United States District Court, D. Colorado
T. Babcock LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE.
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.
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
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).
SSA's Five-Step Process for Determining Whether a
Claimant Is “Disabled”
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.
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.
Standard for Reviewing SSA's Decision
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).
The ALJ's Decision
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.
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).
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 ...