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Atkinson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

February 7, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Dustin B. Pead United States Magistrate Judge.

         The 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.


         This 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.


         Plaintiff 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.

         a. Medical opinion evidence

         Dr. James Ottesen’s Opinion

         Dr. 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).

         Dr. Paul Staheli’s Opinion

         In 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).

         Dr. Christian Monson’s Opinion

         In 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).


         a. Definition of Disability Under the Act

         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).

         b. Process for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To 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.

         c. Standard of Review

         A 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).


         At step 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).

         V. DISCUSSION

         The 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 ...

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