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Hill v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 9, 2018



          Nina Y. Wang, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This civil action arises under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83(c) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration's ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") final decision denying Plaintiff Jayme Hill's ("Plaintiff or "Ms. Hill") applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Pursuant to the Order of Reassignment dated March 29, 2018 [#18], this civil action is before this Magistrate Judge for a decision on the merits. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73; D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.2. Upon review of the Parties' briefing, the entire case file, the Administrative Record, and the applicable case law, this court respectfully AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         This case arises from Plaintiff s applications for DIB and SSI protectively filed on May 30, 2013. [#8-3 at 96, 97].[1]Ms. Hill graduated from high school, obtained her associate's degree in business, and worked as a customer service representative for Frontier Airlines, as a real estate intern and then agent, as a customer service representative for Nextel, as a customer service representative for TeleTech Customer Care Management, as a work-study participant for the Community College of Aurora's financial aid and administration department, and currently as a driver for Lyft for roughly 20 hours per week. See [#8-2 at 39-43; #8-6 at 288; 312-15; #8-7 at 321-26, 330-34, 335, 364]. Ms. Hill alleges she became disabled on January 21, 2011 [#8-3 at 98], later amended to October 11, 2012 [#8-2 at 37], due to injuries to both her hands, chronic regional pain syndrome ("CRPS") of the right hand, and carpal tunnel syndrome of the left hand, see [#8-7 at 349]. Ms. Hill was thirty-seven years-old on the amended alleged onset date of her claimed disability.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiffs application administratively on February 11, 2014. See [#8-2 at 96, 97; #8-4 at 144-48]. Ms. Hill requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), see [#8-4 at 152-54], which ALJ Patricia E. Hartman (the "ALJ") held on June 4, 2015, see [#8-2 at 63]. Following this hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Hill not disabled. See [#8-3 at 123, 133]. Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council granted. See [id. at 139]. The Appeals Council remanded Ms. Hill's case back to the ALJ because the ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") determination was "wholly inconsistent" with the opinion of John Sacha, M.D., who opined that Ms. Hill could not maintain gainful employment, which the ALJ afforded great weight. See [id. at 141]. The Appeals Council directed the ALJ on remand to "[g]ive further consideration to the claimant's maximum [RFC] and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations" and "[i]f warranted by the expended record, obtain evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base . . . ." [Id. at 141-42].

         Following remand, the ALJ conducted a second hearing on November 22, 2016. [#8-2 at 32]. At the hearing, Ms. Hill proceeded through counsel, and the ALJ received testimony from Plaintiff and Vocational Expert Pat W. Pauline (the "VE"). See [id. at 15, 36, 58]. Relevant here, Plaintiff testified that her only reason for not working since 2012 was her hands. See [id. at 43-44]; see also [id. at 46 (testifying that she does not have any mental ailments that preclude her from working)]. She explained that she "got a cramp in [her] hand" while working for Frontier Airlines in 2011, which was so severe that she could not move her hand and caused her to file a worker's compensation claim. [Id. at 42]. Plaintiff continued that Dr. Sacha informed her she had CRPS, and that her CRPS only slightly responded to physical therapy, cortisone shots in her wrists, "shots in her neck", Gabapentin, and Motrin. [Id. at 44-45]. She also attested that her right wrist was worse than her left wrist. [Id. at 47].

         Plaintiff testified that while she currently works as a Lyft driver, her hours vary depending "on how [her] hands are feeling." [Id. at 39]. For instance, she testified that driving sometimes causes her hands to swell, cramp to the point that she cannot move them, itch, and burn, causing her to stop driving that day. See [id. at 40-41, 53]. Further, Plaintiff explained that someone else washes her car because "[t]hat [would] kill her hands." [Id. at 52]. Plaintiffs issues with her hands also prohibited her from maintaining employment as a caretaker for the elderly because she had to push wheelchairs and transfer clients to and from bed, see [id. at 44], and as a real estate agent because of the amount of typing required to draft real estate sales contracts, see [id. at 55]. Indeed, Ms. Hill testified that "sometimes writing, typing, [and] grabbing" make her hand pain worse, and that sleep "is the best thing for [the pain]" which is why she tries to nap on days when the pain is the worst. [Id. at 47, 48]. Ms. Hill also testified that she did not have any issues grooming herself, though her hair takes longer to "get done," [id. at 48, 57], but that she avoids clothes with buttons or zippers because they are too difficult to manipulate, [id. at 57].

         The VE also testified at the hearing. The VE first summarized Plaintiffs past relevant work to include: a customer service representative, specific vocational preparation ("SVP") level 5, sedentary; a reservation agent, SVP level 4, sedentary; an administrative clerk, SVP level 4, light exertion; a table clerk, SVP level 4, sedentary; and a realtor, SVP level 5, light exertion. See [#8-2 at 59].

         The VE then considered the work an individual could perform who could perform light work with the additional limitations of occasionally using hand controls, handling, fingering, and feeling; frequently reaching in all directions; and no kneeling, crawling, climbing ladders or scaffolds, or working at unprotected heights, with dangerous unprotected machinery, or with vibrating tools. [#8-2 at 59-60]. The VE testified that this individual could perform only Ms. Hill's previous work as a customer service representative. [#8-2 at 60]. In addition, the VE testified that, consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, this individual could also perform sedentary jobs as a callout operator and surveillance system monitor, both SVP level 2 jobs.[2] [Id. at 60]. In response to Plaintiffs counsel's question, the VE also stated that employers for these jobs would tolerate "no more than ten percent" of being off task. [Id. at 61].

         On December 15, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Hill not disabled under the Act. [#8-2 at 25]. Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner [id. at 1-3]. Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado on November 13, 2017, invoking this court's jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).


         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); cf. Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993) ("[I]f the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence." (internal citation omitted)). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because she 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) (internal citation omitted). But "[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) (internal citation omitted). The court may 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 (internal citation omitted).


         I. The ALJ's Decision

         An individual is eligible for DIB benefits under the Act if she is insured, has not attained retirement age, has filed an application for DIB, and is under a disability as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). Supplemental Security Income is available to an individual who is financially eligible, files an application for SSI, and is disabled as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. An individual is determined to be under a disability only if her "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. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The disabling impairment must last, or be expected to ...

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