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Sallee v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 13, 2019

MICHELE ANN SALLEE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KRISTEN L. MIX, MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court[1] on the Social Security Administrative Record [#8], [2] filed December 4, 2017, in support of Plaintiff's Complaint [#1] seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. On January 16, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#15] (the “Brief”). In lieu of filing a Response to the Opening Brief, Defendant filed a Motion to Remand for Further Administrative Proceedings Pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) [#14] (the “Motion”). Plaintiff filed a Response [#15] in opposition to the Motion, and Defendant filed a Reply [#17]. As the Senior Judge noted before reassignment of this case to the undersigned, the issues raised in the Motion [#14] are “sufficiently intertwined with the merits of the underlying controversy” that both should be decided together. See Order [#18]. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). The Court has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion [#14] is GRANTED, and the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since January 11, 2012. Tr. 10.[3] On October 7, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI. Tr. 10. On October 9, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 20.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since October 7, 2014, the application date. Tr. 12. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from three severe impairments: (1) history of left ankle fracture in January 2012, (2) anxiety disorder, and (3) organic mental disorder. Tr. 12. However, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals “the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” Tr. 12. The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following abilities and limitations:

[D]uring an eight-hour workday, the claimant can sit for a total of six hours, and stand and/or walk for a combined total of four hours; the claimant can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; the claimant must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold; the claimant cannot work at unprotected heights or around fast moving machinery; the claimant can perform work that can be learned in up to three months' time; and can tolerate occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.

Tr. 14. Based on the RFC and the testimony of an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but found that there are jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy which Plaintiff can perform, including the representative occupations of assembler of small products, mail room clerk, and office helper. Tr. 18-19. The ALJ therefore found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 20. The ALJ's decision has become the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         II. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         Pursuant to the Act:

[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons who have a “disability.” A person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such benefits, “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.”

Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a claimant is disabled if he or she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying disabling impairment must be demonstrated by “medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic” findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).

         “When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act. To be disabling, the claimant's condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

         The Court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner by examining the administrative record and determining “whether the [ALJ's] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However, the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Harper v. Colvin, 528 Fed.Appx. 887, 890 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689 (10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary findings, the Court “may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if the Court may have “made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).

         A. ...


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