United States District Court, D. Colorado
JULIE A. WILLCOXON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commission of Social Security, Defendant.
Brooke Jackson United States District Judge.
matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's
decision denying claimant Julie Willcoxon's application
for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under
Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Jurisdiction is proper
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons below, the
Court REVERSES and REMANDS 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). 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
Willcoxon is 33 years old. See R. 22. She lives in
Trinidad, Colorado with her husband and three children and
has a high school education. R. 37, 171. She shares the
responsibility for taking care of the kids with her husband,
and she can perform basic household chores such as washing
dishes and grocery shopping at a delayed pace. R. 68-69, 74.
She can no longer drive due to her health issues, and her
husband does the cooking. R. 74. Ms. Willcoxon has no
significant work history as defined by Social Security
regulations, but she did work as a janitor and housekeeper at
a hotel for a limited period of time. R. 22.
Willcoxon alleges that she began suffering from a seizure
disorder after giving birth to her son in June 2012. R. 68.
She alleges that she suffers nearly 60-70 seizures each year,
and that these seizures cause back and neck pain, anxiety due
to her fear of having another seizure, fatigue, confusion,
and soreness lasting seven to ten days after a seizure. R.
260. Her medical record reflects differing opinions about the
cause and legitimacy of her seizure disorder. At least three
doctors have diagnosed her with having pseudo-seizures, which
are non-epileptic seizures that result from psychological
conditions such as stress or anxiety rather than brain
function. See R. 500 (Dr. Riley noting prior
diagnosis of pseudo-seizures), 616-624 (Dr. Berg noting that
“her physicians and 2 neurologists say these episodes
are not true seizures.”). However, at least one doctor,
Dr. Riley, noted that he “witnessed another seizure
[Ms. Willcoxon] had here in the [emergency department] and it
was a true epileptic seizure.” R. 500. In addition to
seizures, Ms. Willcoxon asserts that she suffers from
frequent migraines, anxiety, depression, and asthma. R. 562,
Willcoxon filed an application for SSI on March 18, 2016 and
listed a disability onset date of July 1, 2012. R. 15. Her
claim was administratively denied on July 15, 2016, so she
filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law
judge (“ALJ”). Id. On April 5, 2017 a
hearing was held before ALJ William Musseman. Id. At
this hearing, Ms. Willcoxon amended her alleged onset date to
March 18, 2016. Id. On June 20, 2017, the ALJ issued
an unfavorable decision. R. 12-23. Ms. Willcoxon appealed
this decision to the Appeals Council, but the Council denied
review on July 26, 2017. R. 1-6. Ms. Willcoxon then filed a
timely appeal in this Court. ECF No. 1. Because the Appeals
Council denied review, the ALJ's decision serves as the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this
Court's review. See Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d
758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). The issues have been fully
briefed. ECF Nos. 14, 15, 18.
The ALJ's Decision.
determined that Ms. Willcoxon is not disabled and therefore
denied benefits. R. 12-23. In making this decision, the ALJ
followed the SSA's standard five-step evaluation process.
First, the ALJ found that Ms. Willcoxon has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of
March 18, 2016. R. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms.
Willcoxon has the severe impairments of seizure disorder and
migraine headaches secondary to the seizure disorder and
obesity. Id. Also during step two, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Willcoxon's back pain, neck pain and
asthma are non-severe impairments. R.18. He then assessed Ms.
Willcoxon's mental impairments of depression and anxiety
in accordance with the psychiatric-review technique required
by SSA regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a.
Pursuant to this technique, the ALJ assessed the degree to
which Ms. Willcoxon's mental impairments limit her
ability to: (1) understand, remember, or apply information;
(2) interact with others; (3) concentrate, persist, or
maintain pace; and (4) adapt or manage herself. Id.
Because the ALJ found that Ms. Willcoxon has no more than
mild limitations in any of the four categories, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Willcoxon's depression and anxiety
are non-severe impairments. R. 19.
three, the ALJ found that Ms. Willcoxon's impairments do
not meet a Listing. R. 19. The ALJ then determined that Ms.
Willcoxon has a residual functional capacity
(“RFC”)- which is a claimant's ability to do
work on a sustained basis despite limitations from her
impairments-to perform “light work” subject to a
few limitations. R. 20-21. Because Ms. Willcoxon has no
past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded directly to step five
of the analysis. At step five, the ALJ presented a
hypothetical set of facts representing Ms. Willcoxon's
RFC, age, education, and work experience to a vocational
expert. R. 22. Using the vocational expert's response to
the hypothetical scenario, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Willcoxon can perform several jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy. Id. For example,
Ms. Willcoxon could perform the role of a small products
assembler or an electronic assembly worker. Id.
Therefore, the ALJ determined that Ms. Willcoxon is not
disabled and denied her application for SSI benefits. R. 23.