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Benson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 26, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Kelly H. Rankin United States Magistrate Judge.

         This action comes before the court pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq.; 1381, et seq., for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Erika Benson's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Pursuant to the consent of the parties, this civil action was referred to the Magistrate Judge pursuant to Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, and D.C.Colo.LCivR 72.2. See Docs. 13, 19, 20. The court has carefully considered the Complaint (filed March 22, 2017) (Doc. 1), Plaintiff's Opening Brief (filed June 30, 2017) (Doc. 16), Defendant's Response Brief (filed July 18, 2017) (Doc. 17), Plaintiff's Reply (filed August 3, 2017) (Doc. 18), the entire case file, the administrative record, and applicable case law. For the following reasons, the court REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings.


         In March 2016, Plaintiff, Erika Benson, applied for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of May 2, 2015. (See Social Security Administrative Record (hereinafter “AR”) at 17, 167, 171). Plaintiff alleged that her ability to work was limited by a number of impairments, including pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, degenerative disc disease, and scoliosis. Id. at 198. Plaintiff was born on December 28, 1975, and was 39 years old on the date of her alleged disability onset. Id. at 167. She completed the 12th grade and has previous work experience as a medical assistant, clinic coordinator, office manager, title clerk, and cashier. Id. at 34-37, 199, 456. After her initial application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on October 31, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. at 29-53, 118.

         On November 21, 2016, the ALJ issued his decision denying benefits. Id. at 12-28. The ALJ's opinion followed the five-step process outlined in the Social Security regulations.[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since May 2, 2015. Id. at 17. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease status-post discectomy; and (2) failed back syndrome with chronic pain; (3) solitary nodule in the right lung; (4) sleep-related hypoxemia; and (5) pancreatitis. Id. The ALJ also concluded that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of adjustment disorder and anxiety were not severe. Id. at 18. At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Benson did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id. at 19.

         The ALJ then assessed the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except with occasional posturals (climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling and crouching); however, no crawling or climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant should have no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts; and no concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, wetness, humidity, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation.

Id. The ALJ concluded that although Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, the evidence did not support a finding that she was as limited as she claimed. See id. at 20-22.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Ms. Benson is capable of performing her past relevant work as an advertising clerk and servicing clerk because those positions do not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by her RFC. Id. at 22. Accordingly, Plaintiff's application for benefits was denied. Id. at 23-24.

         Following the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 11. The Appeals Council denied her request on January 24, 2017. Id. at 1-4. The decision of the ALJ then became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d 1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Ms. Benson filed this action on March 22, 2017. Doc. 1. The court has jurisdiction to review the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff raises numerous arguments on appeal. One of those arguments - the ALJ erred in failing to analyze whether her mental impairments limit her ability to perform basic work activities in the RFC assessment - is sufficient on its own to warrant reversal. Therefore, the court declines to address the others as they may be impacted on remand. See Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003) (“We will not reach the remaining issues raised by appellant because they may be affected by the [administrative law judge's] treatment of the case on remand.”); see also Brown v. Barnhart, 182 F. App'x 771, 772 (10th Cir. 2006) (failure to find plaintiff's fibromyalgia severe at step two impacted the subsequent steps in the ALJ's analysis); Crider v. Barnhart, 427 F.Supp.2d 999, 1010 (D. Colo. 2006) (declining to address plaintiff's additional contentions where the ALJ erred at step two by failing to address whether plaintiff had fibromyalgia).

         On appeal, Ms. Benson contends the ALJ erred in determining her mental impairments were non-severe. Doc. 16 at 19. She further contends that even assuming arguendo the ALJ did not err at step two, the ALJ did commit reversible error when he failed to analyze whether these mental impairments limit her ability to perform basic work activities in the RFC assessment. Id. In response, the Commissioner seems to argue that the ALJ sufficiently considered the record as a whole and, therefore, any failure to analyze Plaintiff's mental limitations is harmless error. Doc. 17 at 9.

         I. ...

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