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Pasillas v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 13, 2019

ERNESTINE PASILLAS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING DISABILITY DECISION AND REMANDING TO AGENCY

          Robert E. Blackburn United States District Judge.

         The matter before me is plaintiff's Complaint [#1], [1] filed June 17, 2019, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. I have jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The matter has been fully briefed, obviating the need for oral argument. I reverse and remand.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges she is disabled as a result of an affective disorder, carpal tunnel syndrome, disorders of the cervical spine and left shoulder joint, and obesity. After her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits were denied, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. This hearing was held on February 11, 2013. On appeal of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, the Commissioner moved to remand the case for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Following remand, a second hearing was held on March 5, 2018. At the time of this hearing, plaintiff was 48 years old. She has a high school education and past relevant work experience as nurse assistant. She has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 9, 2007, her alleged date of onset.[2] The ALJ found plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income benefits. Although the medical evidence established plaintiff suffered from severe impairments, the judge concluded the severity of those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the social security regulations. Other impairments were found to be non-severe. The ALJ found plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a simple, light work with postural and non-exertional limitations. Although this finding precluded plaintiff's past relevant work, the judge determined there were other jobs existing in sufficient numbers in the national and local economies she could perform. He therefore found plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council. The Council affirmed. Plaintiff then filed this action in federal court.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act only if her physical and/or mental impairments preclude her from performing both her previous work and any other “substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). “When a claimant has one or more severe impairments the Social Security [Act] requires the [Commissioner] to consider the combined effects of the impairments in making a disability determination.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C)). However, the mere existence of a severe impairment or combination of impairments does not require a finding that an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. To be disabling, the claimant's condition must be so functionally limiting as to preclude any substantial gainful activity for at least twelve consecutive months. See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled:

1. The ALJ must first ascertain whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is working is not disabled regardless of the medical findings.
2. The ALJ must then determine whether the claimed impairment is “severe.” A “severe impairment” must significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.
3. The ALJ must then determine if the impairment meets or equals in severity certain impairments described in Appendix 1 of the regulations.
4. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform his past work despite any limitations.
5. If the claimant does not have the residual functional capacity to perform her past work, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant can perform any other gainful and substantial work in the economy. This determination is made on the basis of the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v).[3] See also Williams v. Bowen 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294 n.5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         Review of the Commissioner's disability decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hamilton v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992); Brown v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 1194, 1196 (10th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is evidence a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Brown, 912 F.2d at 1196. It requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Hedstrom v. Sullivan, 783 F.Supp. 553, 556 (D. Colo. 1992). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). Further, “if the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). Although a reviewing court should meticulously examine the record, it may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner. Id.

         III. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         I previously have rejected plaintiff's suggestion that the ALJ has any burden at step five to explain why he finds a number of alternative jobs significant when, as here, they plainly are. As I have told her counsel before, “[p]laintiff has identified no authority which requires the ALJ to give the detailed, factor-by-factor explanation she suggests is necessary, except in the circumstances not relevant here.” Garcia v. Saul, 2019 WL 3802105 at *4 n.6 (D. Colo. Aug. 13, 2019). Indeed, as I have found previously, the law is plainly to the contrary.[4]See Id. (quoting Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1274 n.2 (10th Cir. 2009) (“‘Trimiar [v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326 (10th Cir. 1992)] does not hold that . . . a court ...


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