United States District Court, D. Colorado
SUSANNE J. BELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING DENIAL
Brooke Jackson United States District Judge.
matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's
decision denying claimant Susanne Bell's application for
supplemental security income under Title XVI 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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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). Reversal may also 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.
Bell was born in 1961 and was 55 at the time of the ALJ's
decision. ECF No. 25 at 4. She has a college degree, but was
married shortly after college and became a homemaker for most
of her adult life. R. 167, 169, 176, 180, 187. She was
employed briefly in part-time jobs as a lunch lady at school,
as a waitress, and as a daycare provider. R. 74, 176-79, 249.
She has not been employed since October 2008. R. 74, 135-37,
149. She was arrested in 2011 for domestic violence and
became homeless for a year in 2012 and 2013. R. 29, 167.
filed for disability alleging post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”) stemming from childhood sexual
molestation and trauma. R. 66, 159, 249. Her PTSD was
diagnosed in 2011 after she was arrested. R. 197, 249. She is
medicated and in counseling for her PTSD, and she
occasionally self-medicates with alcohol. R. 212. She was
diagnosed with borderline personality disorder
(“BPD”) in January 2016, but she claims that she
was not informed of the diagnosis. R. 552. In fact, she
claims that the ALJ's decision was the first time she
learned about the BPD diagnosis. See R. 573.
Bell filed a claim for supplemental security income on
November 25, 2014. R. 23. Ms. Bell alleged disability
beginning October 1, 2008. Id. Her claims for
benefits were denied on February 19, 2015. Id. Ms.
Bell then requested a hearing, which was held before
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Patricia E.
Hartman on November 8, 2016. Id. The ALJ issued a
decision denying benefits on December 19, 2016. R. 20-31. The
Appeals Council denied Ms. Bell's Request for Review on
February 23, 2017, rendering the ALJ's determination the
final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial
review. R. 1. Ms. Bell filed a timely appeal in this Court,
appearing pro se.
The ALJ's Decision.
issued an unfavorable decision after evaluating the evidence
according to the SSA's standard five-step process. R.
23-31. First, the ALJ found that Ms. Bell had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the application date of
November 25, 2014. R. 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms.
Bell had the severe impairments of depression, PTSD, BPD, and
alcohol abuse. Id. The ALJ found that the alleged
conditions of glaucoma and varicose veins were nonsevere
impairments. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded
that Ms. Bell 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. Id.
then found that Ms. Bell retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels but with several nonexertional
limitations. R. 27. In particular, Ms. Bell is limited to
simple, routine, repetitive tasks, can have occasional
interaction with supervisors and co-workers but no
interaction with the public, and cannot climb ladders or work
at heights. Id. At step four, the ALJ noted that Ms.
Bell has no past relevant work. R. 30. At step five, the ALJ
determined that “jobs exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that the claimant can perform.”
Id. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Bell was
not disabled. Id.
Bell, who is appearing pro se after her attorney
withdrew in December 2016, does not expressly allege any
error on the part of the ALJ in making her determination.
See R. 10. Instead, she rehashes her diagnoses of
PTSD and BPD and recounts her personal history and family
life. See ECF No. 22 at 1-2. She includes letters
from her outpatient therapist and primary health care
providers confirming that she is receiving treatment for her
PTSD and BPD and opining that she is disabled. Id.
at 3-6. She also reiterates the reasons she needs
supplemental security income, noting that “[m]y
financial needs are met, except I need SSI to be
able to see my daughter in Texas . . . I need money to rent a
car/motel room.” Id. at 2 (emphasis in