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Castillo v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 27, 2018

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


          PHILIP A. BRIMMER United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint [Docket No. 1] filed by plaintiff Gina Castillo on July 27, 2016. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 2, 2012, plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. R. at 16. Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since April 19, 2012, but later amended her claim to allege an onset of disability on April 11, 2013, coinciding with the end of her last continuous period of substantial gainful activity. Id. After an initial administrative denial of her claim, plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on November 10, 2014. Id. On January 16, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. R. at 31. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, obesity, and major depressive disorder. R. at 20. The ALJ concluded that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations' listed impairments, id., and ruled that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform a range of light exertional work (20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b); SRS 83-10), with the following limitations: the claimant can maintain the concentration, persistence, and pace, necessary to carry out, understand, and remember routine, but not complex, instructions and tasks. She should not have frequent changes in work setting or duties. She is able to interact occasionally with supervisors, co-workers, and the public. The claimant should avoid ladders, ropes, scaffolds, and work at unprotected heights and around moving machinery. She should avoid walking over uneven surfaces. She should avoid exposure to more than “moderate” noise, as that term is defined in the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (“SCO”) of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). The claimant can lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. She can sit 6 hours in total in an 8-hour workday. She can stand one hour at a time, and walk 2 blocks at a time, for a total of 6 hours standing or walking in an 8-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch.

R. at 21. Based upon this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a routing clerk and a merchandise marker. R at 30.

         After the ALJ's decision, plaintiff submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council that was not before the ALJ at the time of the decision. R. at 5, 689-90. The first piece of additional evidence is a report of an MRI of plaintiff's spine from May 9, 2013. R. at 689. It includes a diagnosis that plaintiff had “[s]evere L5-S1 degenerative disc disease with disc bulging abutting the bilateral exiting L5 nerve roots.” Id. The second piece of evidence is a letter from Erinn Stauter M.D., a staff psychiatrist at Medical Health Center of Denver. R. at 690. It states that plaintiff has been in treatment with Dr. Stauter since February 2014, was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and panic disorder, has taken “low doses” of certain medications with “some efficacy, ” and is also receiving therapy. Id.

         On May 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's denial of her claim. R. at 1. The Appeals Council considered the new evidence and added it to the record, but found that the added information did not “provide a basis for changing the Administrative Law Judge's decision.” R. at 2. Given the Appeals Council's denial, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in her decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). Moreover, “[e]vidence 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). The district court will not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine 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.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, “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).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he ...

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