United States District Court, D. Colorado
COLLEEN Y. WEST Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
T. BABCOCK, JUDGE
Colleen West appeals the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security (“SSA”) denying
her application for Supplemental Security Income under the
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c. I
have considered the parties' briefs (ECF Nos. 14-16) and
the administrative record (ECF No. 11) (“AR”).
Oral argument would not materially assist me in determining
West argues the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
erred when he found that she only had one severe impairment,
erred when he failed to obtain relevant records, erred in his
evaluation of her residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), and erred when he determined that Ms.
West had past relevant work as a telemarketer. Because I
conclude that the ALJ erred by failing to obtain pertinent
medical records before evaluating whether Ms. West was
disabled, I decline to reach Ms. West's other arguments.
I accordingly REVERSE the SSA's decision and REMAND this
case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
West filed her claim for Supplemental Security Income with
SSA in May 2013, alleging disability beginning on July 1,
1997. AR 116-22. After SSA initially denied her claim, AR
50-54, Ms. West requested a hearing, AR 60-61. The hearing
took place on January 19, 2016, before an ALJ. AR 146-92. On
February 24, 2016, the ALJ denied Ms. West's claim,
concluding that she was not disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act. AR 17-31. Ms. West asked SSA's
Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. AR 9-13. On
February 6, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, AR 1-6,
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of SSA,
see Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir.
2003). On April 7, 2017, Ms. West timely filed this appeal.
(ECF No. 1.) I have jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
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. West had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since April 16, 2013. AR 22. At step two,
the ALJ found Ms. West had one severe impairment:
seizures. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that
Ms. West'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 23. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. West had the
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except no
climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She should avoid
concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold; must avoid
exposure to unprotected heights and ...