United States District Court, D. Colorado
KRISTEN L. MIX UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter is before the Court on the Social Security
Administrative Record [#11],  filed January 8,
2019, in support of Plaintiff's Complaint [#1] seeking
review of the decision of Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner
of the Social Security Administration,
(“Defendant” or “Commissioner”)
denying Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security
income benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security
Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. On
February 19, 2019, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief [#16]
(the “Brief”), and Defendant filed a Response
[#17] in opposition. No. reply was filed. The Court has
jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). The Court
has reviewed the entire case file and the applicable law and
is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set
forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is
REVERSED and REMANDED.
Factual and Procedural Background
alleges that she has been disabled since March 10, 2016. Tr.
14 (discussing amendment of alleged onset date from March 9,
1998). On March 8, 2016, Plaintiff filed an
application for supplemental security income under Title XVI.
Tr. 14. On March 8, 2018, an Administrative Law Judge (the
“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 27.
determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity (“SGA”) since March 8, 2016, the
application date. Tr. 17. The ALJ found that Plaintiff
suffers from three severe impairments: (1) vagal nerve injury
with resultant gastroparesis, status-post gastro pacer
placement; (2) gastroesophageal reflex disease
(“GERD”); and (3) depression. Tr. 17. However,
the ALJ also found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment
or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals
“the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20
CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d),
416.925 and 416.926).” Tr. 17. The ALJ next concluded
that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work with the following
abilities and limitations:
[C]an never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; should never
be exposed to unprotected heights; can understand, remember
and carry out tasks of limited complexity consistent with
unskilled work; can make simple work-related decisions; can
tolerate occasional brief interaction with supervisors and
co-workers; and, can have no interaction with the general
Tr. 19. Based on the RFC and the testimony of an impartial
vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but found that there are
jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national
economy which Plaintiff can perform, including the
representative occupations of mail clerk, routing clerk, and
inspector and hand packager. Tr. 25-26. The ALJ therefore
found Plaintiff not disabled at step five of the sequential
evaluation. Tr. 25. The ALJ's decision has become the
final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial
review. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
Standard of Review and Applicable Law
to the Act:
[T]he Social Security Administration is authorized to pay
disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security
Income to persons who have a “disability.” A
person qualifies as disabled, and thereby eligible for such
benefits, “only if his physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable
to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age,
education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of
substantial gainful work which exists in the national
Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003)
(quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(B)). Under the applicable legal standard, a
claimant is disabled if he or she is unable “to engage
in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . .
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(a); see also Wall v.
Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20
C.F.R. § 416.905(a)). The existence of a qualifying
disabling impairment must be demonstrated by “medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic”
findings. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 423(d)(5)(A).
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 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.
Court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner by
examining the administrative record and determining
“whether the [ALJ's] factual findings are supported
by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct
legal standards were applied.” Wilson v.
Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). However,
the Court “may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.”
Harper v. Colvin, 528 Fed.Appx. 887, 890 (10th Cir.
2013) (quoting Barnett v. Apfel, 231 F.3d 687, 689
(10th Cir. 2000)). In other words, the Court does not
reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of
Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir.
1993). Thus, even when some evidence could support contrary
findings, the Court “may not displace the agency's
choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if
the Court may have “made a different choice had the
matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v.
Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).
Social Security Administration uses a five-step framework to
determine whether a claimant meets the necessary conditions
to receive Social Security benefits. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden
of proof at steps one through four, and if the claimant fails
at any of these steps, consideration of any subsequent step
or steps is unnecessary. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d
748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988) (“If a determination can be
made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not
disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not
necessary.”). The Commissioner bears the burden of
proof at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137,
146 n.5 (1987).
one requires the ALJ to determine whether a claimant is
“presently engaged in substantial gainful
activity.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (quoting
Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1142 (10th Cir.
2004)). If not, the ALJ considers at step two whether a
claimant has “a medically severe impairment or
impairments.” Id. “An impairment is
severe under the applicable regulations if it significantly
limits a claimant's physical or mental ability to perform
basic work activities.” Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052
(citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). Next, at step three, the
ALJ considers whether a claimant's medically severe
impairments are equivalent to a condition “listed in
the appendix of the relevant disability regulation, ”
i.e., the “Listings.” Wall, 561
F.3d at 1052 (quoting Allen, 357 F.3d at 1142).
“If a claimant's impairments are not equivalent to
a listed impairment, the ALJ must consider, at step four,
whether a claimant's impairments prevent [him or her]
from performing [his or her] past relevant work.”
Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citing Allen, 357
F.3d at 1142). “Even if a claimant is so impaired, the
agency considers, at step five, whether [he or she] possesses
the sufficient [RFC] to perform other work in the national
must consider all evidence and explain why he or she finds a
claimant not disabled. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d
1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). However, the ALJ need not
specifically “reference everything in the
administrative record.” Wilson, 602 F.3d at
1148. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. at 1140 (internal quotation
marks omitted). “It requires more than a scintilla, but
less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489
F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). A decision by the ALJ is
not based on substantial evidence “if it is overwhelmed
by other evidence in the record . . . .” Grogan v.
Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005). In
other words, the Court's determination of whether the ALJ
has supported his or her ruling with substantial evidence
“must be based upon the record taken as a whole.”
Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir.
1994). Further, evidence is not substantial if it
“constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v.
Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). In
addition, “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).
requests judicial review of the ALJ's decision denying
her supplemental security income. Brief [#16].
First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by concluding
“that certain of [Plaintiff's] medical complaints
were nonsevere.” Id. at 22-24. Second,
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “erred by failing to take
into account the combined nonexertional effects of
[Plaintiff's] severe and nonsevere impairments when she
assigned the [RFC] limitations.” Id. at 24-28.
Third, Plaintiff argues that “the ALJ erred by failing
to make adequate findings at step four regarding the
functional effects of [Plaintiff's] ...