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Petti v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 27, 2018

DWAN R. PETTI, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on the Complaint [Docket No. 1] filed by plaintiff Dwan R. Petti on March 13, 2017. Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 17, 2012, plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. R. at 22. Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since December 20, 2011, id., but she has amended her claim to allege disability beginning January 1, 2012. R. at 530. Plaintiff's disability insurance benefits ended on March 31, 2013. Id. Thus, the relevant period for plaintiff's claim is January 1, 2012 through March 31, 2013. After an initial administrative denial of her claim, Plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 9, 2013. R. at 22. On May 10, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. R. at 32. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the district court, and, on January 20, 2016, District Judge William J. Martinez vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case. R. at 601; Petti v. Colvin, No. 15-cv-0256-WJM, 2016 WL 232775, at *6 (D. Colo. Jan. 20, 2016). Judge Martinez found that the ALJ “did not follow the correct legal standards in considering the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist and treating psychologist, ” which he noted were “uncontradicted by other medical professionals.” R. at 596-97. Judge Martinez also found that he could not “determine, from the ALJ's decision, whether the ALJ's RFC accounted for Plaintiff's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace.” R. at 599. Following remand, on September 22, 2016, the ALJ held a second hearing. R. at 530. On January 11, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision again denying plaintiff's claim. R. at 541. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and liver disease. R. at 532. The ALJ concluded that these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet one of the regulations' listed impairments, id. at 533, and ruled that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations: [Plaintiff] required nonproduction oriented work which is unskilled, with a SVP skill level of one or two, not in close proximity to co-workers or supervisors (meaning that she could not function as a member of a team), and minimal to no direct contact with the public.

R. at 534. Based upon this RFC and in reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. at 540. Specifically, the ALJ identified three positions that plaintiff could perform: dry cleaner, flagger, and microfilm document preparer. Id. Each of these positions is performed at a light or sedentary exertional level and is classified as unskilled, with a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) level of two. R. at 540.

         The Appeals Council did not review the ALJ's denial of her claim. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.


         Review of the Commissioner's finding that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003). The district court may not reverse an ALJ simply because the court may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in her decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “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). Moreover, “[e]vidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The district court will not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070. Nevertheless, “if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993).


         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months that prevents the claimant from performing any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2). Furthermore,

[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 gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988). The steps of the evaluation are:

(1) whether the claimant is currently working; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets an impairment listed in appendix 1 of the relevant regulation; (4) whether the impairment precludes the claimant from doing his past relevant work; ...

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