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Knight v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 5, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), filed July 13, 2016. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. Doc. 9. Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed applications with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on July 15, 2011. AR at 88-91; 197-212.[1] Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of December 31, 2009, due to “scoliosis of the lower spine; degenerative disc disease; arthritis; [and] menstrual migraines.” AR at 92, 100. Prior to claiming disability Plaintiff worked as a clerical worker, a bartender, a waitress, a manager of a gift shop, and a counter helper/sales person at a sign supply company. AR at 76. Plaintiff testified that she stopped working at this final position (at a family business) because she was excessively calling and coming in late because of her conditions. AR at 51-52.

         The agency denied Plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a hearing. AR at 88-129. After a de novo hearing, Administrative Law Judge Frederick Upshall Jr. (“the ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision on April 7, 2014. AR at 20-37. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of the ALJ's Decision to the Appeals Council, which the Council declined on July 31, 2015. AR at 1-3, 13-16. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that she 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period. AR at 22. At Step Two, he determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease, scoliosis of the lumbar spine, migraine headaches, osteoarthritis, and an Adjustment Disorder. . . .” AR at 23. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments, individually and in combination, did not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 23-25.

         When a plaintiff does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities a plaintiff retains in spite of her medical impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). In this case the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she requires a sit/stand option allowing her to sit or stand alternatively at will, with the maximum length of time that she is able to sit or stand at one time being 30 to 45 minutes. No climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs. Occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling. Occasional reaching and overhead reaching with the left upper extremity. Only occasional interaction with the public that is incidental to the work performed. She is limited to simple, unskilled work.

AR at 26. Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. AR at 35. However, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform; specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff maintains the RFC to work as an assembly worker, a garment sorter, and a wire cutter stripper. AR at 35-36. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from her alleged onset date through the date of his decision, and denied benefits. AR at 47.

         II. Legal Standard

         This Court “review[s] the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the 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) (quoting Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 571 (10th Cir. 2014)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012).

         III. Analysis

         A. Dr. Owen's Opinion

         There was little evidence pertaining to Plaintiff's mental health in the record prior to the hearing before the ALJ, which took place on June 13, 2013. AR at 44. In fact, Plaintiff testified at the hearing that she had not received treatment for any mental or emotional health issues - although her sisters recommended that she do so - due to her lack of insurance. AR at 69. Given this testimony, the ALJ thought it prudent to send Plaintiff for a consultative psychological examination. AR at 20, 82.

         Plaintiff was evaluated by John Owen, Ph.D., on September 10, 2013. AR at 533. Ultimately, Dr. Owen diagnosed Plaintiff with “Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood. Social Anxiety, provisional.” AR at 534. In his statement of opinion of abilities Dr. Owen made the following findings:

1. Understand and Remember
A. Detailed or complex instructions: mild difficulty
B. Very short and simple instructions: no difficulty
2. Sustained Concentration and Task Persistence
A. Ability to carry out instructions: moderate to marked ...

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