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Hawkes v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 16, 2019

JENNIFER ELAINE HAWKES, an individual, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on review of Defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Andrew M. Saul's (“the Commissioner's”) decision denying Plaintiff Jennifer Elaine Hawkes' (“Plaintiff's”) application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Plaintiff filed an opening brief on May 3, 2019 (ECF No. 15), Defendant filed a response on May 28, 2019 (ECF No. 18), and Plaintiff filed a reply on June 9, 2019 (ECF No. 19). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's decision to deny Plaintiff's application for social security benefits is vacated, and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Jennifer Elaine Hawkes was born in November 1985 (ECF No. 11-3 at 4), and was 26 years old at the alleged disability-onset date of March 15, 2013 (ECF No. 11-13 at 1). Plaintiff completed high school and two college classes (ECF No. 11-2 at 36-37), and worked part-time for several years as a server (id. at 47). Plaintiff initially filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on November 18, 2014, alleging the following disabling medical conditions: musculoskeletal disorder of neck; bipolar with psychotic features; anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”); fibromyalgia; chronic pain syndrome; obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”); insomnia; and hypersomnia. (ECF No. 11-3 at 4-5.) On April 28, 2015, the Commissioner made an initial determination that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 20.)

         A hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was held on November 10, 2015. (ECF No. 11-2 at 31.) On December 28, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff to be “not disabled” (id. at 12), and the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied review of that decision (id. at 2). That decision was appealed to this Court, which on November 3, 2017, vacated the decision of the Commissioner and remanded for further proceedings. (ECF No. 11-14 at 62.) Pursuant to the Court's order, the same ALJ conducted a second hearing on July 24, 2018.[1] (ECF No. 11-13 at 1.) The ALJ again determined that Plaintiff is not disabled (ECF No. 11-13), and Plaintiff again asks the Court to review the ALJ's decision.

         The record reflects that Plaintiff has a long history of mental health impairments. When she was 12 years old, she began cutting herself. (ECF No. 11-9 at 90.) At 15, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Id. at 78.) After being raped at 17, she began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Id. at 78.) After the birth of her two children, she began suffering from postpartum depression. (Id. at 78.) She continues to suffer from depression and paranoia, and additionally reports that she has intermittent auditory, visual, and command hallucinations. (ECF No. 11-13 at 53.) She has also been diagnosed with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. (ECF No. 11-9 at 78.)

         In addition, Plaintiff suffers from serious physical ailments. In 2011, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic pain syndrome. (ECF No. 11-21 at 40.) She has also been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine. (Id.)


         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits in a decision dated September 26, 2018. (ECF No. 11-13.) In the sequential evaluation process required by law, [2] the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2018, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 13.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia/chronic pain syndrome, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, ADHD, PTSD, and OCD. (Id. at 13.) 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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 13.)

         As to the residual-functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ found as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she requires work which is unskilled, with an SVP 1 or 2. This work should involve no more than routine tasks and simple decision-making without close proximity to coworkers or supervisors (meaning she cannot function as a member of a team).
She is limited to minimal to no direct contact with the public. She can lift and/or carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally. She can stand or walk with normal breaks for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can sit with normal breaks for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can perform pushing and pulling motions with the upper extremities within the weight restrictions given. She can frequently climb ramps and stairs, but occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She [can] frequently crawl.

(Id. at 14-15.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have any past relevant work. At step five, taking into account Plaintiff's age (26 at the alleged onset date), education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national and regional economies that Plaintiff can perform. (Id. at 26.) Based on the hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform such jobs as “assembler of small products” (Dictionary of Occupational Titles [“DOT”] # 706.684-022), “cleaner” (DOT # 323.687-014), and “routing clerk/mail sorter” (DOT # 222.687-022). (Id. at 27.) The ALJ accordingly found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, ” from the alleged onset date of March 15, 2013 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 27.)


         The Court's review of a 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 Servs., 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). The 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, the Court “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

         Plaintiff seeks vacatur of the Commissioner's decision on three grounds: (1) the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's statements regarding her symptoms were not consistent with the evidence was not based on substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ's reasons for giving little weight to the opinions of treating nurses Mark Jankelow and Sandra Yaney were not based on substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ erred in failing to address certain third-party statements. (ECF No. 15 at 1-2.) Because the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be vacated on the basis of the second ground, Plaintiff's remaining issues will not be addressed.

         A. Relevant ...

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