United States District Court, D. Colorado
RAMONA G. MORALES, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER'S
S. KRIEGER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
MATTER comes before the Court on the Plaintiff's
Complaint (# 1), the Plaintiff's Opening
Brief (# 15), the Defendant's Response
(# 17), and the Plaintiff's Reply
(# 20). For the following reasons, the
Commissioner's decision is reversed and the matter is
remanded for further proceedings.
Court has jurisdiction over an appeal from a final decision
of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Morales seeks judicial review of a final decision by the
Commissioner denying her claim for disability insurance
benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act. In December
2014, Ms. Morales filed for DIB, claiming she became disabled
in September 2013, later amended to August 2014. Tr. at 39,
169-70. Her application was denied at all administrative
levels and she now appeals to this Court.
Court summarizes only the medical evidence relevant to its
decision. Here, the dispositive issue concerns the weight
given to the medical opinions as to her functional capacity.
At the time of her alleged onset of disability, Ms. Morales
was 54 years old. Tr. at 169. She was previously employed as
a receptionist and a fast-food services manager. Tr. at 218.
She has a history of musculoskeletal problems that were
exacerbated by injuries that she suffered in a vehicular
accident in July 2016.
March 2015, consultant Dr. Matthew Simpson examined Ms.
Morales. Tr. at 649-60. Although he conducted a thorough exam
of all of Ms. Morales' systems, the relevant findings
come from his musculoskeletal exam. Tr. at 657-58. He
observed normal range of motion in her cervical and
dorsolumbar spine, knee joints, ankle joints, elbow joints,
wrist joints, and finger joints. Tr. at 657-58. He also
observed mild discomfort while examining her hip joints,
though her straight-leg tests were negative, as well as her
shoulder joints. Tr. at 657. Moving her to spine, he found
there was no cervical, thoracic, lumbar, or sacral spinous
process - only mild tenderness to palpitation in paraspinal
areas on the left. Tr. at 658. He noted postoperative changes
in hardware installed in Ms. Morales' lumbar spine during
a prior surgery, but that there was no evidence of hardware
failure. Tr. at 659. Based on these observations, he
diagnosed her with chronic lumbar back pain but no “red
flag signs on examination”. Tr. at 659. He then opined
that Ms. Morales could (1) sit without limitation during a
workday; (2) stand three to five hours and walk between two
and four hours in a workday; (3) frequently lift and carry 20
pounds and occasionally lift and carry 35 pounds; (4)
occasionally bend, stoop, squat, or crouch; (5) manipulate
with her fingers and arms without limitation; and should (6)
use a cane for intermediate distances, longer distances, and
uneven terrain. Tr. at 660.
Morales has a treatment relationship with Dr. Munni Setty. In
November 2016, Dr. Setty completed a physical residual
functional capacity (RFC) questionnaire. Tr. at 899-903. Dr.
Setty observed that Ms. Morales has chronic lower back pain,
depression, fatigue, numbness / severe neuropathy, neck pain,
and balance / instability. Tr. at 899. Based on her treatment
relationship with Ms. Morales, Dr. Setty opined that: (1) Ms.
Morales' pain was such that it would constantly interfere
with her attention and concentration needed to perform simple
work tasks; (2) Ms. Morales was incapable of handling even
low-stress jobs; (3) Ms. Morales could not walk more than one
block without severe pain; (4) she could not sit for more
than 10 minutes at a time or stand for more than five minutes
at a time; (5) Ms. Morales must walk every 90 minutes for
five minutes; (6) Ms. Morales needed a job that permits the
volitional shifting of positions and unscheduled breaks; (7)
Ms. Morales only used a cane as needed for balance; (8) Ms.
Morales could not lift or carry anything more than 10 pounds,
look down, turn her head right or left, look up twist, stoop,
or climb; (9) Ms. Morales could rarely crouch and climb
stairs; and that (10) Ms. Morales could manipulate and twist
objects with her hands and fingers less than half of a
workday, and reach overhead less than 5% of a workday. Tr. at
The ALJ's Decision
2017, the ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to Ms. Morales.
At step one, the ALJ found that she had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since August 2014. Tr. at 19. At
step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Morales had the following
severe impairments: history of right knee, status-post total
knee replacement; mild right knee arthritis; obesity; lumbar
fusion with left L3-4 radiculopathy; peripheral neuropathy;
diabetes; osteoarthritis and history of C2 fracture; and
depression and anxiety. Tr. at 19. At step three, the ALJ
found that Ms. Morales did not have an impairment that met or
medically equaled the presumptively disabling conditions
listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Appendix 1. Tr. at 19. The ALJ
further found that Ms. Morales had the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to perform light work with the following
characteristics: she can lift, carry, push, or pull 20 pounds
occasionally and ten pounds frequently; she can sit for six
hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; she can
stand or walk two hours in an eight-hour workday with normal
breaks; if she walks more than two blocks, she must have the
opportunity to use a cane; she can climb ramps and stairs,
stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and balance occasionally; she
cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can drive for
work occasionally; she cannot work at heights; she can
understand, remember, and carry out tasks learned in two
years or less; and she can tolerate frequent interaction with
the public. Tr. at 22. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms.
Morales was capable of performing her past relevant work as a
receptionist. Tr. at 26. The ALJ did not make alternative
findings at step five.
hearing, the ALJ heard testimony about Ms. Morales'
mental impairments from Dr. Mary Buban, the medical expert.
Tr. 42-46. In crafting Ms. Morales' RFC, the ALJ gave
minimal weight to Dr. Setty's opinion, great weight to
Dr. Simpson's opinion, little weight to an opinion from
Dr. Mary Ann Wharry ...