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Gallegos v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 12, 2018

LUCY GALLEGOS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Kathleen M Tafoya United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter comes before the court on review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff Lucy Gallegos's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act. (See generally Doc. No. 11, Social Security Administrative Record [“AR”].) Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff filed her opening brief on August 22, 2016 (Doc. No. 14 [“Opening Br.”]), Defendant filed her response on September 8, 2018 (Doc. No. 15 [“Resp.”]). No reply was filed.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In denying Plaintiff's claim, 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 five-step sequential evaluation process.[1] After reviewing the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments that included psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, and cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease. (AR 16.) However, the ALJ found that she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in or medically equal to one contained in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and found her capable of performing perform light work, limited to only occasional postural activity, with the need to avoid heights and dangerous moving machinery. (AR 16.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a florist and other jobs existing in the national economy. (AR 18-19.)

         Plaintiff sought timely review before this court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act only if her physical and/or mental impairments preclude her from performing both her 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 Cir. 1995).

         Review 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).

         Further, “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). The court, however, may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner. Thompson, 987 F.2d at 1487.

         As the 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.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises several issues for consideration-primarily challenging the ALJ's application of treating physician principles. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ's RFC analysis is infected with error because of deficiencies in analyzing the treating ...


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