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Willcoxon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 15, 2018

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


          R. Brooke Jackson United States District Judge.

         This 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.


         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.


         Ms. 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.

         Ms. 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, 435.

         A. Procedural History.

         Ms. 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.

         B. The ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ 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.

         At step 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.[1] 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.

         III. ...

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