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Bustamante v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 26, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiff Raedell Bustamante's application for disability benefits. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1966. (Doc. # 11-5 at 124.)[1] She completed one year of college, and she was most recently employed as a medical clerk from 2007 to 2015. (Doc. # 11-6 at 172.) Plaintiff suffers from several health issues including diabetes mellitus type II, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, tibial occlusive arterial disease, gastroparesis, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, gout, obesity, and colitis. (Doc. # 11-2 at 17-18.) Plaintiff's last day of employment was on January 30, 2015. (Id. at 17.)

         On January 30, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as an application for supplemental security income. (Id.) In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on January 30, 2015. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on June 25, 2015. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing on July 15, 2015, which took place on December 15, 2016. The hearing was conducted by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and Amanda Munzer, an impartial vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing.

         On May 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision in which the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of her claims for: disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. (Id. at 24.) Thereafter, Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision from the Social Security Administration Appeals Council. However, Plaintiff's request for review was denied[2] because the Appeals Council concluded that there was no “basis for changing the [ALJ's] decision.” (Id. at 1.) Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the finial decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. This appeal followed.


         When reviewing the Commissioner's decision, this Court is limited to determining “whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Secretary applied the correct legal standards.” Pacheco v. Sullivan, 931 F.2d 695, 696 (10th Cir. 1991); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). The Supreme Court has defined “substantial evidence” as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consol. Edison Co. of N.Y. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 217 (1938). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). Thus, a decision is not based on substantial evidence “if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record.” Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In reviewing the record to make the substantial evidence determination, the Court “may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for the Secretary's.” Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994). In addition, the Court “may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the [C]ourt would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quotation marks and citation omitted). Also, the Court “defer[s] to the ALJ on matters involving the credibility of witnesses.” Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         Additionally, “[f]ailure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this [C]ourt with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984); see also Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). “There are specific rules of law that must be followed in deciding whether evidence is substantial in these disability cases.” Frey v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 512 (10th Cir. 1987).

         However, not every error in evaluating evidence or applying the correct legal standard warrants reversal or remand. “Courts may not reverse and remand for failure to comply with a regulation without first considering whether the error was harmless.” Bornette v. Barnhart, 466 F.Supp.2d 811, 816 (E.D. Tex. 2006); see also Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1145 (10th Cir. 2004) (recognizing that the Tenth Circuit has “specifically applied [the principle of harmless error] in social security disability cases” and collecting cases). Harmless error exists where it is “inconceivable” that a different administrative conclusion would have been reached absent the error. Frank v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 618, 622 (5th Cir. 2003).

         III. ANALYSIS

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987). Specifically, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant: (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a medically determinable impairment that is “severe” or a combination of impairments that is “severe”; (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments of a severity which meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of her past relevant work; and (5) is able to do any other work considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If a determination is made at any of the steps that the claimant is or is not disabled, “evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Williams v. Bowens, 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988).

         In the instant case, the ALJ performed an extensive analysis of Plaintiff's RFC. The ALJ's considered Plaintiff's medical history, opinions from medical professionals, testimony from the December 15, 2016 hearing, and other evidence in the record. (Doc. # 11-2 at 17-24.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work-subject to various conditions-and that she “is capable of performing [her] past relevant work as a Medical Clerk, Medical Assistant, and Home Health Attendant.” (Id. ...

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