LYNN R. PRIER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JULIE A. ROBINSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
This matter is before the Court for review of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Lynn Prier’s application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Because the Court finds that Defendant Commissioner’s findings are not supported by substantial evidence, the Court reverses and remands the decision of Defendant Commissioner.
I. Procedural History
On July 28, 2011, Plaintiff protectively applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of July 1, 2008. Plaintiff was last insured for disability insurance benefits on September 30, 2009. Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). After a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled; the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision. Plaintiff then timely sought judicial review before this Court.
II. Standard for Judicial Review
Judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to whether Defendant’s decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether Defendant applied the correct legal standards. The Tenth Circuit has defined “substantial evidence” as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” In the course of its review, the court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of Defendant.
III. Legal Standards and Analytical Framework
Under the Social Security Act, “disability” means the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” An individual “shall be determined to be under a disability 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.” The Secretary has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. If the ALJ determines the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any step along the way, the evaluation ends.
Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ’s determination at step one that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2008, the alleged onset date. Nor does Plaintiff challenge the ALJ’s determination at step two that Plaintiff has medically “severe” impairments: history of renal cell carcinoma in remission-status post nephrectomy; fibromyalgia; and anxiety with a depressive state. Nor does Plaintiff challenge the ALJ’s determination at step three that she does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal a listing.
But Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s determination of Plaintiff’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) based on the ALJ: (1) giving “little weight” to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating therapist, Gwendolyn Burke, rather than recontacting Ms. Burke to develop the record further; (2) improperly evaluating Plaintiff’s credibility; and (3) failing to include in the RFC limitations on Plaintiff’s contact with co-workers and supervisors. Plaintiff further challenges the ALJ’s determination at step four because the ALJ did not make any specific findings regarding the physical and mental demands of Plaintiff’s past relevant work and erroneously adopted the Vocational Expert’s testimony.
A. Determination of mental RFC, failure to include limitations on contact with co-workers and supervisors, weight given the opinion of treating therapist, and failure to develop record
At step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a severe impairment of “anxiety with a depressive state.” But at step 4, the ALJ’s RFC included only two mental limitations: that Plaintiff cannot perform work with high production quotas or rapid assembly line work, and that Plaintiff should have only occasional contact with the public. At step 4, the ALJ must determine the claimant’s RFC and include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports the RFC assessment, citing specific medical and nonmedical evidence.
Here, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in giving “little weight” to the opinion of her treating therapist, Gwendolyn Burke, L.C.S.W., of Psychiatric Professional Associates. Ms. Burke opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in her ability to interact appropriately with the general public, and moderate to marked limitations in her ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, as well as moderate limitations in her ability to get along with co-workers or peers. The ALJ’s RFC assessment was that Plaintiff could have only occasional contact with the public; but the ALJ placed no limitation on Plaintiff’s ability to interact with co-workers and supervisors. The nature and extent of these social limitations is material, as ...