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Salazar v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 19, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Ramona L. Salazar's appeal of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for social security income (SSI). Exercising jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court affirms the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Salazar applied for SSI on May 14, 2014. (Doc. # 11-2 at 15.) On October 12, 2016, following a hearing, an ALJ denied Ms. Salazar's claim, ultimately finding that she was not under a “disability” as defined in Title II of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 15-27.) Ms. Salazar appealed the ALJ's denial, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-3.)


         Judicial review of the ALJ's final decision is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “The court may not reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Trimiar v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326, 1329 (10th Cir. 1992). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because it may have reached a different result based on the record. Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).

         Instead, this Court's limited role is to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003); Trimiar, 966 F.2d at 1328-29. “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). A finding of “‘no substantial evidence' will be found only where there is a ‘conspicuous absence of credible choices' or ‘no contrary medical evidence.'” Trimiar, 966 F.2d at 1329. Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it is actually mere conclusion. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). Moreover, the record must show the ALJ considered all the evidence, but he need only discuss the evidence supporting his decision, along with any “uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 576 (10th Cir. 2014); Lykins v. Colvin, 657 Fed.Appx. 726, 727 (10th Cir. 2016)

         Failure to apply the correct legal standard is also grounds for reversal. Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984). This Court must therefore determine whether the ALJ's action is consistent with the Social Security Act and the relevant regulations and case law. Ellison, 929 F.2d at 536.

         However, not every error in evaluating evidence or applying the correct legal standard warrants reversal or remand. Courts may not reverse and remand for failure to comply with a regulation without first considering whether the error was harmless. Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1145 (10th Cir. 2004). The standard for harmless error requires a finding that, considering the evidence before the ALJ, the Court can “confidently say that no reasonable administrative factfinder, following the correct analysis, could have resolved the factual matter in any other way.” Id.; see also Armijo v. Astrue, 385 Fed.Appx. 789, 792 (10th Cir. 2010); Lynn P. v. Berryhill, No. 17-CV-212-JFJ, 2018 WL 3142937, at *3 (N.D. Okla. June 27, 2018). Where the court “can follow the [ALJ's] reasoning in conducting [its] review, and can determine that correct legal standards have been applied, merely technical omissions in the ALJ's reasoning do not dictate reversal.” Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012)

         III. LAW

         “Disability” is defined in the Social Security Act as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act further provides that

“[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 work which exists in the national economy. . . .”

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1062 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The steps of the evaluation are whether: (1) the claimant is currently working; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) the claimant's impairment meets an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) the impairment precludes the claimant from doing her past relevant work; and (5) the impairment precludes the claimant from doing any work. See 20 CFR 404.1512(g), 404.1560(c), 416.912(g), and 416.960(c); Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1076 (10th Cir. 2007). A finding that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in the five-step evaluation process is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In this case, the ALJ proceeded through the first three steps in the sequential process. The ALJ concluded that Ms. Salazar (1) had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time pertinent to this decision”; (2) suffered from “the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine; obesity; affective disorder; anxiety; and personality disorder”; and (3) did not have an “impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments.” (Doc. # 11-2 at 17-18.)

         Before addressing the fourth step, the ALJ assessed Ms. Salazar's residual functional capacity (RFC) and concluded that Ms. Salazar had the RFC to perform “less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b).” (Id. at 20.) The ALJ added:

[Ms. Salazar] can occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds and frequently lift and carry 10 pounds. She can stand and walk for six hours total out of an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours total out of an eight-hour workday. Moreover, the claimant can occasionally bend, squat, and kneel. She cannot perform any complex tasks. Further, [Ms. Salazar] can perform unskilled jobs, with a SVP of two or less. ...

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