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Holt v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 16, 2019

TONY HOLT, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.

          ORDER VACATING AND REMANDING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          WILLIAM J. MARTÍNEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on review of the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief on November 13, 2018 (ECF No. 17), and the Commissioner filed a Response on January 2, 2019 (ECF No. 21). A Reply was not filed. For the reasons described below, the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's application is vacated and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on July 30, 1969, and was 45 years on the alleged disability onset date of April 15, 2015. (Record (“R.”), ECF No. 10, at 48, 61.) He completed two years of college, and had past relevant work as a plumber and welder, both of which were heavy, skilled jobs. (Id. 61, 92, 253.)

         Plaintiff protectively applied for Disability Income Benefits and Supplemental Security Income in October 2015. (R. 72.) He alleged disability beginning April 25, 2015, due to a combination of physical and psychological impairments. (Id. 252, 267.)

         Plaintiff's applications were denied (R. 142-152), and he requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (id. 153, 169-71). A hearing was held on Plaintiff's claim on December 12, 2017. (Id. 69-97.)

         Plaintiff testified at the hearing that he had undergone three shoulder surgeries, and that he had problems raising his hands over his head with any weight. (R. 82-83.) He stated that his treating physician Dr. Laurel Verant and surgeon Dr. Jennifer Fitzpatrick restricted him to picking up and carrying no more than eight pounds of weight. (Id. 85-86.)[2] Plaintiff testified that his lower back and shoulders “constantly hurt”, that his spine and back gives him pain “all the time”, and that he “constantly” has muscle spasms in his lower back. (Id. 84.) He has to lie down three to four hours during the day because his medication makes him sleepy, dizzy, and nauseated, and he has insomnia. (Id. 86.)

         As to his work capacity, Plaintiff testified that in an eight hour day the maximum he could sit and stand was for about an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes. (R. 83-85.) He could sit for 15 minutes at a time in an hour, and could “barely walk a block” without “losing his breath” and needing to rest. (Id.) Plaintiff also testified to memory and concentration problems, and that he has anger problems that make it difficult for him to get along with people. (Id. 88-90.)

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits in a decision dated March 8, 2018. (R. 43-68.) In the sequential evaluation process required by law, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 25, 2015, the alleged onset date. (Id. 48.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the bilateral shoulders, obesity, mood disorder, anti-social personality traits, and anxiety disorder[.]” (R. 48.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. 49.)

         As to the residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform light work “except the claimant can occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds.” (R. 52.) She further found:

He can stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and can sit for more than six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant can frequently climb ladders, can climb ramps and stairs without limitation, can balance without limitation, and can frequently stoop, and no limitation on the ability to kneel, crouch, or crawl. He is able to reach overhead frequently with the bilateral upper extremities, and has no other manipulative limitations. The claimant should not work more than frequently at unprotected heights or more than frequently if operating heavy equipment. He can understand and remember moderately complex and detailed instructions that require independent work that can be learned or mastered within a six-month period. The claimant can sustain concentration, persistence, or pace for those instructions over a typical workday and workweek; however, work duties should not require the claimant to interact with the general public, but he could tolerate incidental interactions with the public. He can tolerate occasional interactions with co-workers and supervisors, occasional work changes, he is able to make independent work decisions, and can travel and recognize and avoid work hazards.

(Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work. (R. 61.) At step five, taking into account Plaintiff's age (45 at the alleged onset date), education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined with assistance from a vocational expert that Plaintiff could perform jobs such as Assembler of Small Products (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) # 706.684-022), Cleaner (DOT # 323.687-014), and Gate Guard (DOT # 372.667-030). (Id. 62, 94.) She found that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. 61-62.) The ALJ thus found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 25, 2015, through the date of this decision.” (Id. 62.)

         The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-4.) Thus, the ALJ's decision became final for purposes of judicial review.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A Court's review of the determination that a claimant is not disabled is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992).

         A court must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1262. However, it “may not reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment” for the Commissioner's. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. The Weighing of the Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate and weigh the medical evidence and source opinions. He asserts that the ALJ gave the greatest weight to the most outdated medical opinions, which were made by the state agency physicians, and the least weight to the opinions of the treating medical providers.

         The ALJ stated as to Plaintiff's physical impairments that she considered and gave “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Virginia Thommen, a state agency medical consultant. (R. 56.) The ALJ gave “partial weight” to the consultative opinion of Dr. Carmen Wong. (Id.) Little weight was given to the opinion of treating physician Dr. Laurel Verant. (Id.) The ALJ gave no weight to the opinions of Dr. Michael McGuinn “and an unknown physician” that Plaintiff was disabled. (Id. 57.) As to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ gave “great weight” to the opinion of state agency physician Dr. Ellen Ryan. (R. 59.) She gave ...


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