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Carnero v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 6, 2016

CHRISTINA S. CARNERO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision and its Memorandum Brief in Support [Docs. 11, 12] (collectively, “Motion”), filed on May 11, 2016. The Commissioner responded on August 5, 2016. [Doc. 18]. Plaintiff replied on August 19, 2016. [Doc. 19]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 15]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds no reversible error in the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) evaluation and rejection of Dr. Baum's opinion. Accordingly, the Motion will be denied.

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[1] is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). Courts must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. The decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Id. While a court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record as a whole must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the [Commissioner]'s findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         “The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (2) she has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and (3) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2]of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for disabled widow's benefits and supplemental security income on December 14, 2011. Tr. 18. She originally alleged a disability-onset date of March 1, 2005, but later amended it to December 6, 2011. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. Id. On November 15, 2013, ALJ Ben Willner presided over a hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 18, 40-79. Plaintiff appeared by video conference from Roswell, New Mexico, and her attorney appeared in Albuquerque. Tr. 42, 43-44. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Pamela Bowman, who appeared by telephone. Tr. 42-43, 44-73, 73-77.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on January 13, 2014. Tr. 30. After finding that Plaintiff met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow's benefits set forth at 42 U.S.C. § 402(e), the ALJ proceeded to the sequential evaluation process. Tr. 20. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged onset date. Tr. 21. Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to step two, where he found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “Degenerative Disc Disease; Obesity; Personality Disorder; and Depression[.]” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 21-23.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 23-28. The ALJ found that

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยงยง] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except [she] is limited to work with simple tasks and simple instructions, for which she can maintain concentration and attention for two hours at a time before taking a normally scheduled break, and then returning to ...

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