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Hatzenbuhler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 30, 2018

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

          R. Brooke Jackson Judge



         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's decision denying claimant Teddy Hatzenbuhler's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         This appeal is based upon the administrative record and the parties' briefs. In reviewing a final decision by the Commissioner, the District Court examines the record and determines whether it contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is “overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence requires “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Evidence is not substantial if it “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In addition, reversal may be appropriate if the Commissioner applies an incorrect legal standard or fails to demonstrate that the correct legal standards have been followed. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1019.


         Mr. Hatzenbuhler is 66 years old and lives in Monument, Colorado. See R. 1, 167. He served as a combat engineer in the United States Army during the Vietnam War from October 1968 until he was honorably discharged in July 1971. R. 193, 286, 334. While in Vietnam, Mr. Hatzenbuhler experienced traumatic events that led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). R. 201, 283, 287. After the war, Mr. Hatzenbuhler went on to complete two years of college and earned a technical degree. R. 53, 219. His post-college work history includes software and hardware quality assurance work, employment as a software specialist, and employment as a software engineer. R. 51-58, 91. Mr. Hatzenbuhler was terminated from his most recent job on November 30, 2010, the alleged onset date of his disability. R. 65-66. He asserts that he suffers from the following impairments: degenerative disc disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, hypertension, sleep apnea, left ventricular hypertrophy, headaches, hearing loss, plantar fasciitis, gastro esophageal reflux disease, insomnia, Hepatitis C, and diverticulitis. R. 98-102.

         Despite these impairments, Mr. Hatzenbuhler lives alone and is able to handle most household chores and yard work on his own, although he pays a housekeeper to periodically help around the house. R. 26. He has several friends with whom he spends time, and he leaves his house most days. Id. In addition, Mr. Hatzenbuhler lifts weights five times per week and is an avid motorcycle rider-for example, in November 2015 Mr. Hatzenbuhler and his friend rode their motorcycles to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, a trip totaling over 5, 000 miles. R. 31.

         A. Procedural History.

         On March 17, 2014 Mr. Hatzenbuhler applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on November 30, 2010. R. 167. His claim was initially denied on May 28, 2014. R. 107. Mr. Haztenbuhler then requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Matthew C. Kawalek on December 16, 2015. R. 44, 116-17. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on January 25, 2016. R. 19-38. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Hatzenbuhler's request for review on March 27, 2017, rendering the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. R. 1-7. Mr. Hatzenbuhler then filed a timely appeal in this Court.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision after evaluating the evidence according to the Social Security Administration's standard five-step process. First, he found that Mr. Hatzenbuhler had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of November 30, 2010 through the date he was last insured, December 31, 2015. R. 24. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Hatzenbuhler had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression. R. 24-25. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Hatzenbuhler did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 25-27.

         The ALJ then found that Mr. Hatzenbuhler retained the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, meaning he can stand or walk for six hours out of an eight- hour workday, and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday; he can lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally, and twenty-five pounds frequently; he can frequently climb, stoop, crouch, and crawl; he can understand, remember, and carry out detailed but not complex tasks and instructions; and he should have no more than occasional interaction with the general public. R. 27-35.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Hatzenbuhler is unable to perform any past relevant work. R. 35-36. However, at step five the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Hatzenbuhler can perform. R. 37. In particular, the ALJ determined via a vocational expert that Mr. Hatzenbuhler would be able to perform the job requirements of a meat clerk, a plant ...

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