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Ledbetter v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 18, 2019

PATRICK E. LEDBETTER, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER VACATING AND REMANDING ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S DENIAL OF SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

          WILLIAM J. MARTÍNEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a Social Security benefits appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Patrick E. Ledbetter (“Ledbetter” or “claimant”) challenges the final decision of Defendant, the Social Security Administration (the “Administration”), denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits (collectively, “Social Security benefits”). The denial was affirmed by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who ruled that Ledbetter 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

         Ledbetter was born in 1968 and was 45 years old on the alleged onset date of October 1, 2013.[2] (Administrative Record (“R.”) [ECF No. 11] at 93, 104.) His highest level of educational achievement is a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. (R. at 102, 113.) In the fifteen years preceding the alleged onset date, he worked as a knife operator, forklift operator, rail operator, yard manager, yard dispatcher, yard supervisor, and deliveryman. (R. at 101, 112.)

         Ledbetter applied for disability insurance benefits on July 14, 2014 (R. at 178), and for supplemental security income on July 31, 2014 (R. at 180). He claimed that he is disabled due to diabetic neuropathy in his hands, diabetes, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and depression. (R. at 93, 104.) The Administration denied Ledbetter's applications on September 15, 2014. (R. at 102-03, 113-14.) Ledbetter requested and received a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge, Matthew C. Kawalek. (R. at 51, 121.) That hearing took place on September 7, 2016. (R. at 51.) On November 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision in accordance with the Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process.[3] (R. at 21.)

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ledbetter had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2013. (R. at 26.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Ledbetter “has the following severe impairments: diabetes with neuropathy, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, lumbar degenerative disc disease, syncope, obesity, schizoaffective disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, and opioid dependence.” (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Ledbetter's impairments, while severe, did not meet or medically equal any of the “listed” impairments in the Social Security regulations. (R. at 28.)

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

to perform a reduced range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) meaning that the claimant can lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour day and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour day [“six-hour sitting limitation”]. The claimant can frequently operate hand and foot controls bilaterally. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can frequently handle, finger, and feel bilaterally. The claimant can tolerate no exposure to hazards. The claimant should not be subject to a production rate pace, such as assembly line work.

(R. at 31 (emphasis added).) Then, at step four, the ALJ concluded that Ledbetter's RFC precludes him from returning to his past relevant work. (R. at 41.)

         At step five, the ALJ found that Ledbetter's RFC permits him to work as a food and beverage order clerk, a charge account clerk, and a microfilm document preparer. (R. at 42.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ found that Ledbetter was not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income benefits. (R. at 42-43.) Ledbetter appealed to the Social Security Appeals Council, which denied review on November 21, 2017. (R. at 1.) Ledbetter then filed this action seeking review of the ALJ's November 8, 2016 decision. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 ...


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