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Earth v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 20, 2019

STEPHANIE RED EARTH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Stephanie Red Earth appeals from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner's final decision denying her application for supplemental security income, filed pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Oral argument would not materially assist me in the determination of this appeal.

         After consideration of the parties' briefs, as well as the administrative record, I AFFIRM the Commissioner's final order.

         I. Statement of the Case

         Plaintiff is a 41 year-old woman who worked as a cashier in fast food restaurants. [Administrative Record (“AR”) 191, 195] She seeks judicial review of SSA's decision denying her application for supplemental security income. Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiff filed her application for supplemental security income in April 2015. [AR 139, 149] She claimed her alleged onset date of her disability was July 1, 2013, but later amended this to April 6, 2015. [AR 10, 191, 860]

         The application was initially denied in January 2016. [AR 84] After Plaintiff's request for review, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted an evidentiary hearing and issued a written ruling in December 2017. [AR 7-27, 36-68, 136-37] In that ruling, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application on the basis that she was not disabled because, considering her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, Plaintiff could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. [AR 21]

         The SSA Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's administrative request for review of the ALJ's determination, making SSA's denial final for the purpose of judicial review. [AR 1-5]; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff timely filed her Complaint with this Court seeking review of SSA's final decision. ECF No. 1.

         II. Relevant Medical History

         Plaintiff has a history of mental conditions, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, and a mood disorder. [AR 75, 354, 619] Plaintiff has spent considerable time incarcerated and has struggled with drug abuse, notably with methamphetamines. [AR 47-50, 350-57] The majority of Plaintiff's medical records are from the Denver Sheriff Health Services and the Mental Health Center of Denver.

         At times, Plaintiff's mental health status exams from the Denver Sheriff Health Services read that she suffered from poorer judgment and insight, auditory hallucinations, paranoid thoughts, and a dysphoric mood. [AR 492-93, 512] The auditory hallucinations were noted when she was off her medication. [AR 493] But generally, Plaintiff had unremarkable mental status exams noting alert attention; orientation to person, place, and time; cooperative and calm behavior; euthymic mood; appropriate affect; and thought content within normal limits. [AR 492, 496, 512, 527, 538, 554]

         In 2014, Plaintiff was referred to the Mental Health Center of Denver. [AR 462] Psychiatrist Erinn Stauter, MD noted Plaintiff was depressed and tearful in an appointment, had auditory hallucinations when on methamphetamines, but otherwise recorded an unremarkable psychiatric exam. [AR 427-32] Around April 2014, Plaintiff was again incarcerated. [AR 407-08] A year later, she saw Dr. Stauter who noted an unremarkable psychiatric exam, except for auditory and visual hallucinations. [AR 353-54] Plaintiff continued to struggle with her use of drugs and related symptoms, alongside a depressed mood, but still had generally unremarkable mental exams. [AR 286-90, 320-21, 636, 647, 658, 668, 677, 684, 696, 709, 718, 726, 734, 742, 750, 758, 769, 780, 791, 804, 818, 833, 846]

         Throughout Plaintiff's care, her case manager noted that she was polite, well-oriented, and positive in her meetings. [AR 312, 334, 337, 340, 345, 348, 365, 368, 374, 380, 390, 414, 418, 458, 461; but see 270 (Plaintiff “presented as somewhat depressed, but still optimistic.”), 326 (Plaintiff was “sad and frustrated on the phone.”)]

         III. Legal Standards

         A. SSA's Five-Step Process for Determining Disability

         A claimant is “disabled” under the Social Security Act if she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). SSA has established a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled and thus entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         At step one, SSA asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. If she is, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). At step two, SSA asks whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”-that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If she does not, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. If she does, SSA moves on to step three, where it determines whether the claimant's impairments “meet or equal” one of the “listed impairments”-impairments so severe that SSA has determined that a claimant who has them is conclusively disabled without regard to the claimant's age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If not, SSA goes to step four.

         At step four, SSA determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)-that is, what she is still able to do despite his impairments-and asks whether the claimant can do any of her “past relevant work” given that RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). If not, SSA goes to the fifth and final step, where it has the burden of showing that the claimant's RFC allows her to do ...


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