Vance v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION by Chief Judge Marcia S. Krieger on 12/6/17. (pglov)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO
Chief Judge Marcia S. Krieger
Civil Action No. 17-CV-0643-MSK
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Plaintiff’s Complaint (# 1), the Plaintiff’s
Opening Brief (# 17) and the Defendant’s Response (# 19). For the following reasons, the
Commissioner’s decision is reversed and the matter is remanded for further proceedings.
The Court has jurisdiction over an appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner under
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Julie Vance seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner denying her
claims for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under the
Social Security Act. In January 2014, Ms. Vance filed for DIB and SSI, claiming she became
disabled in September 2013, as amended. Tr. at 145, 336–50. After her application was denied
at all administrative levels, she now appeals to this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
At the time of his alleged onset of disability, Ms. Vance was 51 years old. Tr. at 336.
She was previously employed as a human resources assistant, sandwich maker, and administrative
clerk. Tr. at 410.
In August 2015, the ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to Ms. Vance. Tr. at 118–29. At
step one, she found that Ms. Vance had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September
1, 2013. Tr. at 121. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Vance had the severe impairment of
degenerative joint disease of the right knee, status-post surgery. Tr. at 122. The ALJ further
found that the following impairments were not severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, thyroid
disease, vertigo, uterine prolapse, depression, and cannabis use. Tr. at 122. At step three, she
found that Ms. Vance did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled the presumptively
disabling conditions listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Appendix 1. Tr. at 123. The ALJ further found
that Ms. Vance had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with the
following limitations: she can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, and ladders; she can occasionally
crouch, kneel, and crawl; she can frequently balance and stoop; and she can maintain and sustain
an ordinary routine and attendance. Tr. at 123. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Vance was
capable of performing her past relevant work as an administrative clerk and assistant manager.
Tr. at 127. The ALJ did made alternative findings at step five, stating that Ms. Vance could also
perform the jobs of housekeeper, cafeteria attendant, and price marker. Tr. at 128.
A single issue is raised – whether the ALJ erred in the step two determination because he
did not employ the psychiatric review technique in assessing for her mental impairment as
required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Though the Court’s review is de novo, the Court must uphold the Commissioner’s decision
if it is free from legal error and the Commissioner’s factual findings are supported by substantial
evidence. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005). Substantial
evidence is evidence a reasonable person would accept to support a conclusion, requiring “more
than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir.
2007). The Court may not reweigh the evidence, it looks to the entire record to determine if
substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner’s decision. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d
1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).
Ms. Vance argues that the ALJ erred at step two by not conducting the psychiatric review
technique for her mental impairment as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a.
At step two, an ALJ is required to address all medically determinable impairments and rate
their severity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). With regard to mental
impairments, the Commissioner’s regulations provide for a special technique — the psychiatric
review technique, or PRT — that is meant to clarify and streamline the process of determining
impairment severity. §§ 404.1520a(a), 416.920a(a). Under the technique, the ALJ must
evaluate a claimant’s symptoms and laboratory findings to determine whether a proposed mental
impairment is medically determinable. §§ 404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1). If so, the ALJ then
must specify the symptoms and laboratory findings that substantiate the impairment and document
findings in the PRT format - activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration,
persistence, and pace; and episodes of decompensation. §§ 404.1520a(b)–(c), 416.920a(b)–(c).
Here, the ALJ stated the following at step two:
The record also contains evidence of other major medical complaints including
diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, benign vertigo, uterine/bladder prolapse,
depression, and marijuana use. However, these complaints have not been
documented with objective medical signs and diagnostic findings sufficient to
establish the existence of enduring medical impairments, significantly
compromising the claimant’s residual functional capacity over time. Accordingly,
these are not considered severe medical impairments that have more than
minimally affected the claimant’s ability to work for the requisite duration of 12
continuous months. . . .
Records around this time further reflect [s]ome complaints of depression, primarily
with indication for some situational stressors. Despite this and her physical
complaints, she indicated in February 2014 that she enjoys being outdoors,
walking, and planned to start weight-lifting as well. . . .
Based on this evidence, the Administrative Law Judge is not persuaded that the
claimant has any severe medical impairments other than a history of right knee
problems, surgery and resulting degenerative joint disease.
Tr. at 122–23 (emphasis added) (citation omitted).
This passage represents the totality of what the ALJ said about Ms. Vance’s depression. It
is unclear from the ALJ’s decision whether the ALJ found the depression was simply a non-sever
impairment or that it had not been medically determined. If the ALJ found depression to be a
nonsevere impairment, the PRT should have been used at step two to determine severity. See §§
404.1520a(b), 416.920a(b); Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1068 (10th Cir. 2013). If the ALJ
intended to find that depression had not been medically determined, that should have been stated.
This ambiguity requires remand so the ALJ may clarify her findings.
For the foregoing reasons, the Commissioner’s decision is REVERSED AND
REMANDED. Judgment shall issue in favor of Ms. Vance.
Dated this 6th day of December, 2017.
BY THE COURT:
Marcia S. Krieger
United States District Court
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