September 3, 2015

Tenth Circuit: In SSDI and SSI Claims, “Not Severe” Impairments Must Still Be Considered at Step 4 of RFC Analysis

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Wells v. Colvin on Monday, August 19, 2013.

Joe Ella Wells applied for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income beginning in 1994 and after her claims went up and down on appeal to the Appeals Council and she refiled several times, an ALJ issued a decision in 2009 that is the subject of the present appeal. The administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded she was not disabled under the Social Security Act and the Appeals Council denied Wells’s appeal.

In a social security disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) case, an ALJ must evaluate the effect of a claimant’s mental impairments on her ability to work using a “special technique” prescribed by the Commissioner’s regulations. At step two of the Commissioner’s five-step analysis, this special technique requires the ALJ to determine whether the mental impairment is “severe” or “not severe.” The ALJ found Wells’s mental impairments were not severe. But the regulations also instruct that even if the ALJ determines that a claimant’s medically determinable mental impairments are “not severe,” he must further consider and discuss them as part of his residual functional capacity (RFC) analysis at step four.

The Tenth Circuit found that the ALJ did not provide an adequate RFC analysis and to the extent the ALJ intended his statements about credibility to constitute a step-four mental RFC analysis, the conclusions he reached from these statements were not supported by substantial evidence.

Wells also argued substantial evidence was lacking because the ALJ rejected all three medical opinions about her mental impairments, two of which said she had marked or moderate limitations in certain areas. The court held that where the medical opinions conflicted with the ALJ’s decision so seriously, it may have been inappropriate for the ALJ to reach an RFC determination without expert medical assistance.

The court remanded for further proceedings concerning the effect of Wells’s mental impairments on her RFC and further analysis at steps four and five. It also directed the ALJ to carefully reconsider whether to adopt the restrictions on Wells’s mental RFC detailed in the medical opinions contained in the file, or whether further medical evidence was needed on this issue. The court also directed the ALJ to re-evaluate Wells’s alleged limitations on reaching and handling. The court rejected several other arguments.

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