United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division
B. Pead United States Magistrate Judge.
parties consented to this court’s jurisdiction under 28
U.S.C. 636(c). (ECF No. 16). Currently pending before the
court is Plaintiff Crystal Atkinson’s
(“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Commissioner of
Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) decision
denying Plaintiff’s claim for Supplemental Security
Income. The court heard oral argument on February 5, 2018.
Having considered the parties’ briefs, the
administrative record, the relevant law, and the
parties’ arguments, the court REMANDS
this case for further consideration by the Commissioner.
case has a somewhat lengthy procedural history, including an
earlier stipulated remand from this court. Plaintiff first
applied for Supplemental Social Security income in January
2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 18, 2012.
(Tr. 203–12). Plaintiff’s initial application was
denied on May 30, 2012, and upon reconsideration on September
6, 2012. (Tr. 103, 122). At Plaintiff’s request, ALJ
Norman L. Bennett held an administrative hearing on December
6, 2013. (Tr. 31–48). On January 6, 2014, ALJ Bennett
issued his decision denying Plaintiff benefits. (Tr.
9–30). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s
request for review on December 17, 2014 (Tr. 1–6).
Plaintiff appealed that decision to the District of Utah in
January 2015. Atkinson v. Colvin, No. 2:15-cv-50 (D.
Utah 2015). On August 27, 2015, this court entered a judgment
remanding the case based on a stipulated motion.
Id.; (Tr. 863–68). On September 28, 2015, the
Appeals Council then remanded the case to the ALJ, providing
certain instructions on remand. (Tr. 869–74). The ALJ
convened a second hearing on June 9, 2016. (Tr.
809–28). On October 4, 2016, the ALJ again issued a
decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 782–807).
Plaintiff then filed the present appeal.
was born in 1979. (Tr. 167). Plaintiff has a seventh-grade
education. (Tr. 233, 359). Plaintiff has no past relevant
work. (Tr. 797). Plaintiff alleges disability due to physical
problems (arthritis, floating bone in right foot, lower back
pain, chronic diarrhea, stomach pain, and carpal tunnel
syndrome) as well as mental problems (anxiety, depression,
post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”)). (Tr.
232). The bulk of the court’s analysis centers on three
opinions from medical sources. The court will briefly
summarize these opinions.
Medical opinion evidence
James Ottesen’s Opinion
Ottesen conducted a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff in
June 2006 for the Department of Rehabilitation Services. (Tr.
358–63). Dr. Ottessen diagnosed Plaintiff with
depressive disorder with anxious symptoms, a learning
disorder with deficits in reading, spelling, arithmetic,
alcohol abuse, cannabis and methamphetamine dependence in
sustained full remission, and borderline intellectual
functioning. (Tr. 362). Dr. Ottessen opined that
Plaintiff’s prognosis for maintaining full-time gainful
employment was fair so long as she “truly wants to
work, refrains from substance abuse, and is willing to manage
her depressive and anxious symptoms.” (Id.)
Dr. Ottesen recommended Plaintiff be placed in a job setting
that offered on- the-job training and did not require average
intelligence, average reading, spelling, or mathematical
ability. (Tr. 363).
Paul Staheli’s Opinion
April 2012, Plaintiff underwent a mental disability
evaluation with Paul Staheli, Ph. D. (Tr. 557–61). Dr.
Staheli diagnosed PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder
(“OCD”) and occupational problems. (Tr. 560). Dr.
Staheli assigned Plaintiff a Global Assessment of Functioning
(“GAF”) score of 40, indicating serious
impairment in Ms. Atkinson’s ability to function.
(Id.) Dr. Staheli opined that Plaintiff’s
prognosis was “guarded” due to a history of abuse
and her need to participate in mental health treatment to
manage her fears and anxiety, which impeded her ability to
obtain employment. (Id.) He also noted impairment in
judgment, memory, concentration and persistence, and
difficulty adapting to new situations. (Tr. 561).
Christian Monson’s Opinion
connection with the 2016 hearing, Christian Monson, Psy. D.,
performed a consultative psychological examination of
Plaintiff in June 2016. (Tr. 1407–16). Dr. Monson
diagnosed major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder,
delusional disorder, PTSD, and an unspecified personality
disorder. (Tr. 1413). He assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of
35. (Id.) Dr. Monson opined Plaintiff had no
limitations in understanding, remembering, and carrying out
simple instructions; and mild limitations in making judgments
on simple work-related decisions, understanding and
remembering complex instructions, and carrying out complex
instructions. (Tr. 1414). He opined Plaintiff had moderate
limitations in responding appropriately to usual work
situations; and marked limitations in making judgments on
complex work-related decisions and interacting with the
public, co-workers, and supervisors. (Tr. 1414–15).
STATEMENT OF RELEVANT LAW
Definition of Disability Under the Act
states that an individual is disabled “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 economy . . . .” 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The disabling impairment must
last, or be expected to last, for at least twelve consecutive
months. Id.; Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S.
212, 214–15 (2002).
Process for Determining Disability Under the Act
determine whether a claimant is disabled, Social Security
regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation
process. The adjudicator considers whether a claimant: (1)
engaged in substantial gainful activity during the alleged
disability period, (2) had a severe impairment, (3) had a
condition that met or medically equaled the severity of a
listed impairment, (4) could return to his past relevant
work, and if not (5) could perform other work in the national
economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If a decision
regarding the claimant’s disability can be reached at
any step in the sequential evaluation process, further
evaluation is unnecessary. Id.
Standard of Review
district court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to
determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a
whole supports the factual findings, and whether the correct
legal standards were applied. Hendron v. Colvin, 767
F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence
means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Id. The court may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Lax v.
Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). Where the
evidence as a whole can support the agency’s decision
or an award of benefits, the court must affirm the
agency’s decision. Ellison v. Sullivan, 929
F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).
THE ALJ’S DECISION
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date,
January 18, 2012. (Tr. 787). At step two, the ALJ found
Plaintiff suffered from several impairments that were severe
in combination. (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff
suffered physical impairments: degenerative changes of the
lumbosacral spine, left knee and ankle, and cervical spine;
left calcaneal spurs; carpal tunnel syndrome; morbid obesity;
chronic abdominal pain of unclear etiology; and status post
giardiasis infection. (Id.) The ALJ also found
Plaintiff suffered mental impairments: a learning disorder;
borderline intellectual functioning; major depressive
disorder; anxiety; and opioid dependency. (Id.). At
step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not meet the
criteria for any listed impairment. (Tr. 788). The ALJ then
found that Plaintiff could perform work at a medium
exertional level, but was limited to simple duties and simple
repetitive tasks. (Id.). At step four, the ALJ found
Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (Tr. 797). At step five,
the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled because she could
perform work that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy. (Tr. 798).
court will remand the Commissioner’s decision because
Plaintiff identifies several errors in the ALJ’s
decision that collectively undermine the ALJ’s
decision. The court finds some of these errors particularly
troubling in light of the Appeals Council’s
instructions on remand. The court acknowledges ...