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Sandoval v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 16, 2018



          Kathleen M Tafoya United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter comes before the court on review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff Joseph G. Sandoval's application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (See generally Doc. No. 11, Social Security Administrative Record [“AR”].)

         Plaintiff filed his opening brief on June 15, 2017 (Doc. No. 15 [“Opening Br.”]). Defendant filed his response on July 16, 2017 (Doc. No. 16 [“Resp.”]), and a reply was filed on July 21, 2017. (Doc. No. 17 [“Reply”].) Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         In denying Plaintiff's claim, Commissioner found Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Administration's regulations (“SSA”). (AR 11, 167-75, 194).) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's subsequent request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision final for purposes of judicial review. (AR 1-6.)

         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 alcohol dependence with alcohol related seizures, generalized anxiety disorder, cannabis dependence, and chronic pulmonary disease. (AR 13.) However, the ALJ found that he 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. When turning to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels but with some limitations as to ladders, heights, machinery and pulmonary irritants. Regarding mental limitations, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing no more than moderately complex instructions, no frequent or prolonged social interactions, and no fast-paced production work. (AR 19-33.) Based upon vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform work existing in the national economy and was thus not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (AR 33-34.)


         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).

         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). And as the Tenth Circuit observed in Baca v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 5 F.3d 476, 480 (10th Cir. 1993), the ALJ 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.


         Plaintiff raises several issues for consideration-primarily challenging the weight afforded to Plaintiff's medical care providers. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ's RFC analysis is infected with error because of inconsistencies between substantial evidence in the record and the RFC determination. The court finds Plaintiff's arguments persuasive.

         A. The ALJ Erred in Formulating the RFC

         The RFC determination is made by the ALJ “based on all the relevant evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The RFC is an assessment of the most a claimant can do despite his limitations. Id. Examples of the types of evidence required to be considered in making an RFC assessment are the claimant's medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, and medical source statements. Soc. Sec. Ruling (SSR) 96-8p (July 2, 1996). An ALJ must make specific RFC findings based on all of the relevant evidence in the case record. See Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *5 (July 2, 1996):

The RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts . . . and nonmedical evidence ... the adjudicator must discuss the individual's ability to perform sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis … and describe the maximum amount of each work-related activity the individual can perform based on the evidence available in the case record. The adjudicator must ...

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