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Dougherty v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 20, 2019

JOHN PATRICK DOUGHERTY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          ORDER

          LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff appeals from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Commissioner’s final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits, filed pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. 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 REVERSE and REMAND the Commissioner’s final order for further proceedings.

         I. Statement of the Case

         Plaintiff is a 54 year-old male who claimed disability due to a spinal disorder, gout, tinnitus, arthritis, high blood pressure, lack of mobility in his arm, attention deficient disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and trouble sleeping. [Administrative Record (“AR”) 260] Plaintiff seeks judicial review of SSA’s decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiff filed his application in February 2016 alleging that his disability began on November 18, 2015. [AR 348] SSA initially denied his applications in July 2016. [AR 282–87] The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted an evidentiary hearing on January 9, 2018 and issued a written ruling on April 24, 2018. [AR 212–53] The ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was not disabled. [AR 226] 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– 6, 344]; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981. Plaintiff timely filed his Complaint with this court seeking review of SSA’s final decision. ECF No. 1.

         II. Legal Standards

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

         A claimant is “disabled” under Title II of the Social Security Act if he 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); 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. § 404.1520.

         At step one, SSA asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If he is, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b). At step two, SSA asks whether the claimant has a “severe impairment”-that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits [his] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c). If he does not, benefits are denied and the inquiry stops. If he 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. §§ 404.1520(d). If not, SSA goes to step four.

         At step four, SSA determines the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”)-that is, what he is still able to do despite his impairments-and asks whether the claimant can do any of his “past relevant work” given that RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e). If not, SSA goes to the fifth and final step, where it must show that the claimant’s RFC allows him to do other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g). The claimant has “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability at steps one through four.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003).

         B. Standard of Review

         My review concerns only whether SSA’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015). With regard to the law, reversal may be appropriate when SSA fails to apply proper legal standards. Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). With regard to the evidence, I must “determine whether the findings of fact . . . are based upon substantial evidence, and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom. If they are so supported, they are conclusive upon the reviewing court and may not be disturbed.” Trujillo v. Richardson, 429 F.2d 1149, 1150 (10th Cir. 1970). “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.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009–10 (10th Cir. 1996). I examine the record as a whole and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d at 1070.

         III. The ALJ’s Ruling

         In his ruling, the ALJ followed the five-step analysis outlined above. The ALJ concluded under the first step that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of November 18, 2015. [AR 218] Under step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments of gout and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. [Id.] The ALJ concluded under step three that the enumerated severe impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (the “Listing”). [Id.] The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work, “except that he can never climb; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and can never work at unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts.” [AR 220] The ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as an electronics technician, fulfilling step four. [AR 225–26] The ALJ supported his decision based in part by the testimony of the vocational expert. [AR 226] Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. [Id.]

         IV. ...


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