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Aguilar v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 20, 2018



          William J. Martinez United States District Judge.

         This is a Social Security benefits appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Jennifer M. Aguilar (“Aguilar”) challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Social Security Administration (“Administration”), denying her application for supplemental security income. The denial was affirmed by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who ruled that Aguilar 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 this case is remanded to the Administration for further proceedings consistent with this order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Aguilar was born in 1981 and was 33 years old on the alleged onset date of June 17, 2014. (Administrative Record (“R.”) [ECF Nos. 12 & 14] at 35.)[2] Her highest level of educational achievement was eighth grade. (R. at 90.) In the fifteen years preceding the alleged onset date, she worked as a customer service representative or telemarketer. (R. at 39-40, 96.)

         Aguilar applied for supplemental security income on June 17, 2014.[3] She claimed that she is disabled due to chronic back pain, bipolar disorder, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, anxiety, and stress. (R. at 86.) Her application was denied on October 16, 2014. (R. at 98.) She requested and received a hearing in front of an ALJ, Jennifer Fellabaum. (R. at 33, 104.) That hearing took place on August 1, 2016. (R. at 33.) On September 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process.[4]

         At step one, the ALJ found that Aguilar had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 17, 2014. (R. at 15.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Aguilar “has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease (DDD); obesity; depressive disorders, NOS; and panic disorder.” (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Aguilar's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal any of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations. (R. at 16.)

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

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that she can occasionally bend, squat, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and should not be exposed to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery. Additionally, the claimant can perform simple, routine tasks; and should have only occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.

(R. at 17.) Then, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Aguilar's RFC precludes her from returning to her past relevant work. (R. at 25.)

         At step five, the ALJ found that Aguilar's RFC permits her to work as a mail clerk, an electronics worker, and an assembler. (R. at 26.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ found that Aguilar was not entitled to Social Security benefits. (Id.) Aguilar appealed to the Social Security Appeals Council, which denied review. (R. at 1.) Aguilar then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's September 8, 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. 2006). “On the other hand, 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Aguilar's challenges focus entirely on the mental limitations stated in the ALJ's RFC, and particularly the ALJ's conclusion that Aguilar “should have only occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.” (R. at 17.) Aguilar reports experiencing debilitating panic attacks multiple times per day (see R. at 40-45, 51-56), and the ALJ was required to decide how those panic attacks affect her ability to interact with others at work. Aguilar believes that “occasional interaction”-with coworkers particularly-seriously overstates her abilities. “Occasional” means up to one-third of a workday. Dictionary of Occupational Titles, app'x C, pt. IV, available at https:// (last accessed Dec. 18, 2018). At the ALJ hearing, a vocational expert testified that jobs exist for a person with the ability to interact with coworkers occasionally, but that no jobs exist for the same person if he or she could interact with coworkers no more than 5% of the workday. Accordingly, the question of Aguilar's ability to interact with coworkers is central.

         The ALJ had four medical source statements to draw upon and/or reconcile in reaching the conclusion that Aguilar can interact with coworkers for up to one-third of a workday. Those statements, and the ...

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