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Cox v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 22, 2019

LINDA J. COX, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DISABILITY DETERMINATION

          Marcia S. Krieger Senior United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff Linda J. Cox's (“Ms. Cox”) Complaint (# 1), filed May 4, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (the “Commissioner”) final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. Having considered all of the documents, including the record (# 11), the Court now finds and concludes as follows:

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over an appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ms. Cox filed an application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act on January 7, 2015. On February 27, 2015, the state agency denied her claim. She requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who issued an unfavorable decision dated April 18, 2017. Ms. Cox appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review, making the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Cox timely appealed to this Court, which reviews the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final denial of benefits. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         The Court offers a brief summary of the facts here and elaborates as necessary in its analysis below. Ms. Cox alleges she is disabled as a result of arthritis in her left ankle and hip, damage to her left knee, flat feet, a bunion on her left foot, seasonal allergies and sciatica. (# 11-6 at 133). Ms. Cox was born in 1971. She was 41 years old at the alleged onset of her disability in September 2012. (# 11-2 at 50). The record reflects she has completed two years of college and has past relevant work experience in customer service and customer service supervision. (#11-2 at 43-44; #11-6). She has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2012 (her alleged date of onset) due to excruciating pain in her feet and ankle that prevented her from walking and generally performing her work duties. (# 11-2 at 32; #11-6 at 133).

         As summarized by the ALJ and further detailed below, Ms. Cox's relevant medical history includes treatments for degenerative joint disease, pain, and swelling in her left ankle. (#11-7 at 183; #11-7 at 222; # 11-11 at 574). Indeed, the ALJ found Ms. Cox to have a severe impairment of degenerative joint disease in her left ankle and noted that “examinations show some edema.” (# 11-2 at 22). In September 2015, Ms. Cox began treating with Dr. Jan Dunn M.D. Dr. Dunn referred Ms. Cox to physical therapy and a chiropractor for her “chronic [left] ankle pain.” (# 11-11 at 538-543). As part of her treatment plan, Ms. Cox routinely attended water-based physical therapy, repeatedly saw a chiropractor, and received massage therapy to alleviate her pain. (# 11-11 at 37-38, 500, 514-515). Based on her treatment history of Ms. Cox, on October 28, 2016, Dr. Dunn opined that Ms. Cox can lift ten pounds, can sit for four hours per day and stand for up to two, and needs to elevate her foot above her heart level for fifteen minutes each hour due to swelling. (# 11-681-82).

         At the hearing before the ALJ held on April 4, 2017, Ms. Cox briefly testified that her past work was as a customer service representative and a customer service representative supervisor. (# 11 at 43-44). No. follow up questions were asked, and Ms. Cox provided no further details about her past relevant work. Based on this testimony, the vocational expert found Ms. Cox's past relevant work in customer service was properly characterized as “sedentary and skilled.” (# 11 at 45). In response to the ALJ's hypothetical question, the vocational expert concluded that an individual with the restrictions set forth in the ALJ's RFC finding, would be able to perform customer service or customer service supervisor jobs. (# 11 at 46).

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         To determine disability, the ALJ analyzed this case pursuant to the sequential five-step inquiry. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1998) (explaining the five steps in detail). At step one, the ALJ found Ms. Cox had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since “September 1, 2012 through her date last insured of December 31, 2016.” (# 11-2 at 15).

         At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Cox “had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease, left ankle; obesity.” (11-2 at 15). At step three, the ALJ found Ms. Cox did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (# 11-2 at 19). The ALJ then assessed Ms. Cox's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and found that Ms. Cox had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the limitation that she should never “use foot or leg controls with the left lower extremity.” (# 11-2 at 19-20). In crafting Ms. Cox's RFC, the ALJ gave “minimal weight” to Dr. Dunn's opinion. (# 11-2 at 22). At step four, the ALJ determined Ms. Cox was capable of performing her past relevant work as a customer service representative and a customer service representative supervisor. (# 11-2 at 22-23). The ALJ therefore found that Ms. Cox was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act, and the ALJ's analysis ended at step four.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         Ms. Cox raises three issues on appeal: (1) Whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of Dr. Dunn, Ms. Cox's treating physician; (2) Whether the ALJ's RFC finding is supported by the evidence; and (3) Whether the ALJ improperly assessed Ms. Cox's past relevant work.

         STANDARD ...


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