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West v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 20, 2018

COLLEEN Y. WEST Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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 this appeal.

         Ms. 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.

         I. Background

         Ms. 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. § 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. 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 following RFC:

[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 ...

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