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Trujillo v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 25, 2018



          William J. Martínez, United States District Judge

         This Social Security benefits appeal is brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Raymond A. Trujillo (“Plaintiff” or “Trujillo”) challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Social Security Administration (“Administration”), denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits (together “benefits”). The denial was affirmed by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who ruled that Trujillo was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. This appeal followed. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is vacated and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Trujillo was born in 1957, and was 54 years old on the alleged disability onset date of January 1, 2012. (Administrative Record (“R.”) (ECF No. 11) at 99.) Trujillo served in the military from September 2, 1975 to August 31, 1979. (R. at 177, 184.) At various times, he worked as a patient advocate, telemarketer, and user support analyst. (R. at 48.) Trujillo also worked intermittently as a bouncer and bartender, but, as the ALJ found, that work activity “did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.” (R. at 37, 43.)

         Trujillo filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on April 22, 2014. (R. at 177, 184.) Plaintiff alleged that he is disabled due to the following conditions: pain in both knees, diabetes, high blood pressure, right shoulder pain, arthritis, and memory loss. (R. at 99-100, 107-08.) His medical records also showed degenerative joint disease in both knees and shoulders. (R. at 102, 110.) Trujillo's applications for benefits were initially denied on July 15, 2014. (R. at 118, 127.) He requested and received a hearing before ALJ Matthew C. Kawalek. (R. at 35, 136-37.) The hearing took place on February 19, 2016. (R. at 54-96.) On March 21, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process.[2]

         At step one, the ALJ found that Trujillo had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2012. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff did some work “on a far less than full-time basis” after the alleged onset date, but that the earnings associated with that work did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (R. at 37.) The ALJ also stated that “this determination has no material impact on the outcome of this decision.” (R. at 37.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Trujillo had the following severe impairments: “osteoarthritis of the bilateral shoulders, osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, hepatitis-C, cirrhosis of the liver, and liver cancer.” (R. at 38.) The ALJ also determined that no other claimed conditions, including Trujillo's “generalized anxiety disorder, diabetes, insomnia, peroneal tendonitis, alcohol abuse, hypertension, cluster headaches, chronic pain, and visual limitation, ” were a severe impairment. (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Trujillo's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations. (R. at 39.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Trujillo's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ concluded that Trujillo has the RFC to perform light work:

[T]he claimant can occasionally lift, carry, push or pull 20 pounds at a time, and frequently lift, carry, push or pull objects weighing up to 10 points. The claimant can stand and walk for no more than about two hours during an eight-hour workday, and the claimant must be permitted to use a cane to stand or walk. The claimant can sit for approximately six hours total during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can never climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolding. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can also occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant should have no more than occasional exposure [to] vibration and no exposure to environmental hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery.

(R. at 41.) In so concluding, the ALJ found that Trujillo's “medically determinably impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms; however [Trujillo's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not fully persuasive to the extent they are inconsistent with the medical evidence of record.” (R. at 42.) Then, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Trujillo was capable of performing his past relevant work. (R. at 47.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ found that Trujillo was not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplement security income benefits because he had not been under a disability from January 1, 2012 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 48.) Trujillo appealed to the Social Security Appeals Council (R. at 30), which denied review (R. at 7). Trujillo then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's March 21, 2016 decision. (ECF No. 1.)


         The Court reviews the Administration's decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is the amount of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record. Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In reviewing the Administration's decision, the Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. ...

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