Sedillo v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER by Magistrate Judge S. Kato Crews on 11/14/2023. IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's Final Decision is AFFIRMED and this civil action is DISMISSED, with each party paying their own fees and costs. (amont, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO
Magistrate Judge S. Kato Crews
Civil Action No. 1:22-cv-00319-SKC
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
OPINION & ORDER
This action is before the Court under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42
U.S.C. § 401 et seq., for review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s
(“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) final decision denying Plaintiff M.L.S.’s 1 application
for supplemental security income. The parties have consented to the Magistrate
Judge’s jurisdiction. Dkt. 9. 2
The Court has carefully considered the parties’ briefs, the social security
administrative record, and applicable law. No hearing is necessary. Because the ALJ
This Opinion & Order identifies Plaintiff by initials only per D.C.COLO.LAPR 5.2.
The Court uses “Dkt. __” to refer to specific docket entries in CM/ECF and uses “AR:
__” to refer to documents in the administrative record. The administrative record may
be found at Dkt. 8.
applied the correct legal standards, met her burden at Step Five, and substantial
evidence in the record supports her findings and the Final Decision, the Court
AFFIRMS the Final Decision.
On February 26, 2019, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for supplemental
security income (SSI) under the Social Security Act claiming she became disabled
beginning November 1, 2014. She eventually appeared and testified at an
administrative law hearing on August 11, 2020, before Administrative Law Judge
Erin Justice (ALJ). Attorney Debra King represented Plaintiff at the hearing.
The ALJ issued her written Decision on May 4, 2021. Dkt. 8-2. She determined
Plaintiff had not been under a disability since her February 26, 2019 application for
SSI. Plaintiff then requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her
request, and in doing so, the ALJ’s Decision became the Final Decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Nelson v. Sullivan, 992 F.2d
1118, 1119 (10th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Plaintiff then timely filed this action.
The Court has jurisdiction to review the Final Decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
SSI FRAMEWORK 3
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.’” Wilson v. Astrue, No. 10-CV-00675-REB, 2011 WL 97234, at *1 (D. Colo.
Jan. 12, 2011) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)). “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.” Id. “[F]inding
that a claimant is able to engage in substantial gainful activity requires more than a
simple determination that the claimant can find employment and that he can
physically perform certain jobs; it also requires a determination that the claimant
can hold whatever job he finds for a significant period of time.” Fritz v. Colvin, 15-cv00230-JLK, 2017 WL 219327, at *8 (D. Colo. Jan. 18, 2017) (emphasis original)
(quoting Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1442 (10th Cir. 1994)).
The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step process to determine whether
a claimant is disabled:
Throughout this Opinion, while the Court may cite relevant sections of Part 404 of
Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations (which contain the Commissioner’s
regulations relating to disability insurance benefits), identical, parallel regulations
can be found in Part 416 of that same title, relating to SSI.
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
4. If the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal a listed
impairment, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can
perform her 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 based on the claimant’s age, education,
work experience, and residual functional capacity.
Wilson, 2011 WL 9234, at *2 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)–(f)); see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920; Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750–51 (10th Cir. 1988). Impairments
that meet a “listing” under the Commissioner’s regulations (20 C.F.R. § Pts. 404 and
416, Subpt. P, App. 1) and a duration requirement are deemed disabling at Step Three
with no need to proceed further in the five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (“If
we can find that you are disabled or not disabled at a step, we make our determination
or decision and we do not go on to the next step.”). Between the Third and Fourth
steps, the ALJ must assess the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC). Id.
§ 416.920(e). The claimant has the burden of proof in Steps One through Four. The
Commissioner bears the burden of proof at Step Five. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080,
1084 (10th Cir. 2007).
The ALJ’s Decision tracks the five-step process. At Step One, she found
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of her SSI
application, February 26, 2019. AR: 20. At Step Two, she found Plaintiff has the
following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; dysfunction of major joints, chronic pain
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. Id. at 21. At Step Three, the
ALJ found Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. She then found Plaintiff has the RFC
to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she can
stand and/or walk for a total of four hours in an eight-hour day and sit
for about six hours in an eight hour day. She can never climb ladders,
ropes or scaffolds, but she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs,
stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She can understand, remember and
perform simple work, and she can have occasional interaction with
coworkers, supervisors and the general public. She can tolerate
occasional changes in the workplace.
Id. at 23-24. At Steps Four and Five, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform
any past relevant work, but that there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. Id. at 32-34. Accordingly, the ALJ
determined Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing the Commissioner’s Final Decision, the Court’s
review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the
correct legal standards and whether the agency’s factual findings are
supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion. It is more than a scintilla, but less than a
Lee v. Berryhill, 690 F. App’x 589, 590 (10th Cir. 2017) (internal quotations and
citations omitted, citing inter alia Knight ex rel. P.K. v. Colvin, 756 F.3d 1171, 1175
(10th Cir. 2014)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner . . .
as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive”).
A court may not reverse an ALJ just because the court may have reached a
different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is
substantial evidence showing the ALJ’s decision was justified. See Ellison v. Sullivan,
929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “We review only the sufficiency of the evidence,
not its weight . . . . Although the evidence may also have supported contrary findings,
we may not displace the agency’s choice between two fairly conflicting views.” Lee,
690 F. App’x at 591-92. Nevertheless, “[e]vidence 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) (internal citation
omitted). A reviewing 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.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067,
1070 (10th Cir. 2007). 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) (internal citation omitted).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to meet the Commissioner’s burden at Step Five
of the sequential process. She claims the ALJ failed on this score in three respects:
(1) the “ALJ’s finding that the limitions (sic) resulting from [Plaintiff]’s combined
physical and mental impairments translated into the ability to perform work on a
sustained basis is not supported by substantial evidence[;]” (2) the “ALJ erred by
failing to address or reconcile material conflicts in the VE’s testimony[;]” and (3) the
“ALJ did not establish that significant numbers of jobs existed in the ‘national
economy’ as the term is defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.960(c) and 416.966(a).”
The ALJ’s Step Five Analysis
At Step Five, it is the Commissioner’s burden to establish that—considering
the plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC—work exists in significant
numbers in the national economy that the plaintiff can perform. Dikeman v. Halter,
245 F.3d 1182, 1186 (10th Cir. 2001); Barrett v. Astrue, 340 F. App’x 481, 487 (10th
Cir. 2009). An ALJ may use a vocational expert (VE) at Step Five to provide an
opinion about the plaintiff’s ability to perform work in the national economy. See
Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1025 (10th Cir. 1996). This is customarily achieved
by the ALJ posing a hypothetical to the VE that includes all the limitations from the
ALJ’s RFC determination. An ALJ may rely on the VE’s testimony as substantial
evidence if the hypothetical posed to the VE contained each of the RFC limitations.
See Qualls v. Apfel, 206 F.3d 1368, 1373 (10th Cir.2000) (noting the VE’s answer to a
hypothetical question that included all the limitations from the RFC assessment
provided a proper basis for the ALJ’s disability decision); Torres v. Saul, No. CIV-18155-SPS, 2019 WL 4467640, at *5 (E.D. Okla. Sept. 18, 2019) (“If the hypothetical
question posed to the VE does not include all of the ALJ’s RFC limitations, the VE’s
testimony cannot constitute substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s
decision.”); see also Hargis v. Sullivan, 945 F.2d 1482, 1492 (10th Cir. 1991)
(“[T]estimony elicited by hypothetical questions that do not relate with precision all
of a claimant’s impairments cannot constitute substantial evidence to support the
Secretary’s decision.”) (internal quotations and citation omitted); Grotendorst v.
Astrue, 370 F. App’x 879, 883 (10th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he hypothetical questions posed to
the VE to assist with the step-five determination must reflect with precision all—and
only—the impairments and limitations borne out by the evidentiary record.”)
(internal quotations and citation omitted).
The only burden on the Commissioner at Step Five is to prove there is other
work the plaintiff can perform; this burden shifting at Step Five does not shift the
plaintiff’s burden to prove their RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(2) (“We are not responsible
for providing additional evidence about your residual functional capacity because we
will use the same residual functional capacity assessment that we used to determine
if you can do your past relevant work.”).
Whether the ALJ failed to reconcile material conflicts in
the VE’s testimony.
At the hearing, the ALJ posed the following hypothetical to the VE:
[P]lease assume an individual of [Plaintiff’s] age, education and past
work, who can occasionally lift 20 pounds, frequently lift 10 pounds; can
stand/walk for a total of four hours; and sit for about six hours in an
eight-hour day; can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds;
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch
and crawl; can understand, remember and perform simple work; can
have occasional interaction . . . with coworkers, supervisors and the
general public; can tolerate occasional changes in the workplace[.]
AR: 56. This hypothetical precisely contains each of the limitations from the RFC. 4
Compare AR: 56 with AR: 23-24. The VE testified that the hypothetical individual
could perform three jobs in the national economy each at the light, unskilled level,
and with an SVP (specific vocational preparation) of 2 and erosion to account for the
Plaintiff’s limitation of standing or walking to four hours in an eight hour day: (1)
small products assembler (with erosion by 30 percent); (2) electronic worker (with
erosion by 10 percent); and (3) machine operator (with erosion by 60 percent). AR: 5657.
The ALJ went on to ask the VE whether his testimony was consistent with the
DOT and its companion publications. Id. at 58. In response, the VE testified he is “not
inconsistent with the DOT,” but noted the DOT provides “little to no guidance
concerning portions of the hypothetical[,]” and therefore, he also relied on his “35+
The ALJ incorporated these limitations by reference in two subsequent
hypotheticals posed to the VE. AR: 57-58.
years experience as a voc rehab counselor” in rendering his opinions. Id.; see Rogers
v. Astrue, 312 F. App’x 138, 142 (10th Cir. 2009) (“Providing this type of professional,
experience-based evidence is precisely what reliance on evidence from a VE is meant
to accomplish. The whole point of vocational testimony is to go beyond facts already
established through publications eligible for judicial or administrative notice and
provide an alternative avenue of proof.”) (citing Gay v. Sullivan, 986 F.2d 1336, 1340
(10th Cir. 1993); SSR 00-4P at p.2 (“Information about a particular job’s requirements
or about occupations not listed in the DOT may be available . . . from a VE’s . . .
experience in job placement or career counseling.”)). Because the ALJ’s hypothetical
included all the limitations from the RFC assessment, the VE’s testimony about the
existence of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform was substantial
evidence to support the ALJ’s findings at Step Five.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred because the jobs the VE identified “are
incompatible with ‘simple work’ because the (sic) all have a ‘reasoning’ level of 2.”
Dkt. 10 at p.13. But applicable authority from this Circuit does not support this
At Step Three, the ALJ found Plaintiff has moderate limitations in the areas
of understanding, remembering or applying information; interacting with others; and
adapting or managing oneself. AR: 22-23. She found Plaintiff has mild limitations in
the areas of concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. Id. at 23. An ALJ may
incorporate moderate limitations in an RFC with the restrictions placed on the
claimant’s work activity. McGregor v. Saul, No. CIV-19-496-SM, 2019 WL 7116110,
at *3 (W.D. Okla. Dec. 23, 2019). “This approach is acceptable in [this] circuit, for [the
Tenth Circuit has] held in a published opinion that an administrative law judge can
account for moderate limitations by limiting the claimant to particular kinds of work
activity.” Smith v. Colvin, 821 F.3d 1264, 1269 (10th Cir. 2016) (citing Vigil v. Colvin,
805 F.3d 1199, 1204 (10th Cir. 2015)).
Such was the case in Vigil, where the Tenth Circuit held the ALJ properly
accounted for the plaintiff’s moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and
pace, by limiting him to unskilled work and an SVP of 1 or 2. Vigil, 805 F.3d at 1204.
Citing SSR 96-9p, the Vigil Court noted that unskilled work generally requires (1)
understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions; (2) making
judgments that are commensurate with the functions of unskilled work—i.e., simple
work-related decisions; (3) responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and
usual work situations; and (4) dealing with changes in a routine work setting. Id.; see
also Hanson v. Colvin, No. CIV-15-1146-HE, 2016 WL 6078394, at *4 (W.D. Okla.
June 10, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, 2016 WL 6078358 (W.D. Okla.
Oct. 17, 2016) (finding the ALJ limiting plaintiff to SVP 2 with additional limitations
properly accounted for plaintiff’s moderate limitations resulting from her mental
impairments) (citing cases).
The ALJ properly did the same here. In relevant part, her RFC assessment
limited the Plaintiff to light work with the additional limitation that she can
understand, remember and perform simple work and can tolerate occasional changes
in the workplace. AR: 24. The three jobs in the national economy she found based on
the VE’s testimony—small products assembler (with erosion by 30 percent);
electronic worker (with erosion by 10 percent); and (3) machine operator (with erosion
by 60 percent)—were each at the light, unskilled level with an SVP of 2. As a result,
the Court finds no error and no conflict between the RFC assessment and the light,
unskilled, and SVP 2 level of the three jobs in the national economy found by the
ALJ. 5 SSR 96-9p; Vigil, 805 F.3d at 1204.
Whether the ALJ failed to establish significant numbers of
jobs existed in the national economy.
Plaintiff also argues the ALJ did not establish that significant numbers of jobs
existed in the “national economy” as the term is defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.960(c)
and 416.966(a). This argument is not persuasive.
Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the administrative law hearing. The full
extent of her attorney’s cross examination of the VE was as follows:
Could I please have the reasoning, language and math requirements for
the three jobs, the last three jobs you listed?
Certainly, machine operator, reasoning, math, language 2, 1 and 1,
respectively; electronics worker, 2, 1 and –
I’m sorry, that was 2, 1 and what?
Electronics worker 2, 1 and 2 respectively; small products assembler, 2,
1 and 1, respectively.
Atty: Okay. I have nothing further, Your Honor.
After posing the particulars from the RFC to the VE, the ALJ asked the VE
whether there existed other jobs in the “national economy” that the Plaintiff could
perform. The ALJ testified there were 43,400 small product assembler jobs available
in the national economy, at least 15,300 electronics worker jobs, and 18,000 machine
operator jobs, for a total of 76,700 jobs in the national economy. AR: 34, 56-57. Courts
in the Tenth Circuit have found numbers far lower than the 76,700 jobs nationally as
significant at Step Five. 6 See Rogers v. Astrue, 312 F. App’x 138, 142 (10th Cir. 2009)
(11,000 national jobs significant); Lynn v. Colvin, 637 F. App’x 495, 499 (10th Cir.
2016) (24,900 national jobs significant); see also Jones v. Colvin, No. CIV-14-170RAW-KEW, 2015 WL 5573074, at *3 (E.D. Okla. Sept. 22, 2015) (15,520 national jobs
significant); Fox v. Colvin, No. CIV-14-489-R, 2015 WL 5178414, at *4 (W.D. Okla.
Sept. 3, 2015) (32,000 national jobs significant); Robben v. Saul, No. 20-cv-173-SM,
2021 WL 433202, *4 (W.D. Okla. Feb. 8, 2021) (40,000 jobs significant); Washington
Plaintiff also argues the ALJ erred by not applying the factors identified in Trimiar
v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 1992). But, as the Tenth Circuit has
explained, an ALJ need only apply the Trimiar factors when the ALJ identifies only
regional job numbers. See Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1275 n.2 (10th Cir.
2009) Those circumstances do not apply here because the VE testified to the number
of jobs existing in the national economy. See also id. (“The problem is that the
controlling statutes, federal regulations, and case law all indicate that the proper
focus generally must be on jobs in the national, not regional, economy.”). Further,
Plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ was required to develop the record into the source
of the VE’s testimony regarding the national numbers is woefully underdeveloped.
And the Court has yet to see a case where an ALJ was required to delve into the VE’s
source material for the national numbers in the way Plaintiff suggests; nor has
Plaintiff cited any such cases. See, e.g., Haddock v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 1084, 1091 (10th
v. Saul, No. 19-cv-1286-EFM, 2019 WL 4080925, at *4 (D. Kan. Aug. 29, 2019) (53,000
The Court finds no error here. The ALJ relied on the VE’s testimony regarding
the number of jobs existing in the national economy considering the limitations in the
RFC, the DOT, and the ALJ’s 35-plus years of experience. This is substantial evidence
in the absence of some conflict between the national numbers and the VE’s testimony.
See Haddock v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 1084, 1091 (10th Cir. 1999) (“We hold merely that the
ALJ must investigate and elicit a reasonable explanation for any conflict between the
Dictionary and expert testimony before the ALJ may rely on the expert’s testimony
as substantial evidence to support a determination of nondisability.”).
Whether the ALJ’s finding that the limitations from the RFC
translated into the ability to perform work on a sustained basis
is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff couches this argument as an additional reason why the Commissioner
failed to meet its Step Five burden. But this argument is not properly squared under
Step Five. Rather, as Plaintiff argues the point, it appears to be an attack on either
the ALJ’s findings at another step in the sequential process or an attack on the ALJ’s
RFC assessment, either of which are the Plaintiff’s burden to prove. For example,
Plaintiff argues that “[a]lthough the objective medical evidence that supported
[Plaintiff’s] claims of pain and other symptoms is abundant, the ALJ was not
persuaded by [Plaintiff’s] statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of her symptoms.” Dkt. 10 at p.8. She summarizes her argument stating, “For
these reasons, the ALJ’s decision fails to demonstrate, given the combined effect of
all of [Plaintiff]’s medically determinable impairments, that [Plaintiff] could sustain
work.” Id. at p.12.
First, as Defendant points out, Plaintiff’s characterization of these arguments
as a Step Five issue improperly attempts to shift the burden of proof when it comes
to proving the RFC or some other step in the sequential process. The Commissioner
bears the burden to prove Step Five, but proving the other steps in the sequential
process was Plaintiff’s burden. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).
So Plaintiff’s overall argument that Defendant failed its burden at Step Five in the
manner argued is a non-starter. See 68 FR 51153-01, 2003 WL 22001943, at *51155
(“Thus, the only burden shift that occurs at step 5 is that we are required to prove
that there is other work that you can do, given your RFC, age, education, and work
experience. That shift does not place on us the burden of proving RFC.”).
Second, after carefully considering Plaintiff’s arguments outside the context of
Defendant’s Step Five burden, the Court finds Plaintiff’s arguments are ultimately a
request to reweigh the evidence, which the Court cannot do. Oldham v. Astrue, 509
F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence in the record supports the
ALJ’s RFC findings and her ultimate determination of nondisability. And the ALJ’s
thorough discussion of the evidence and the reasons for her conclusions demonstrate
she applied the correct legal standards throughout the Final Decision.
For the reasons shared above, the Court is satisfied that the ALJ considered
all relevant facts, applied the correct legal standards, and that the record contains
substantial evidence from which the Commissioner could properly conclude under the
law and regulations that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of Title XVI
of the Social Security Act, and therefore, not eligible to receive SSI.
Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner’s Final Decision is
AFFIRMED and this civil action is DISMISSED, with each party paying their own
fees and costs.
DATED: November 14, 2023.
BY THE COURT:
S. Kato Crews
United States Magistrate Judge
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