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Madrid v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 20, 2016

CINDY MADRID, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Cindy Madrid's Motion to Reverse Commissioner's Administrative Decision and Remand Claim (Doc. 26), which was fully briefed June 3, 2016. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, the Honorable Martha Vasquez referred this matter to me for a recommended disposition. Doc. 21. Having carefully reviewed the parties' submissions and the administrative record, I recommend that the Court DENY Ms. Madrid's motion.

         I. 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). “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 and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its 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. A 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 the Court may not reweigh 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 ALJ'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) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a). The claimant also must establish that he or she became disabled before his or her last insured date. See 42 U.S.C. 423(c)(1); Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 909 (10th Cir. 2006) (the claimant “only qualifies for disability benefits if he can show that he was disabled prior to his last insured date”).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Madrid is 56 years old and resides with her minor child. AR 130-31. She holds college degrees in chemistry and the philosophy of religions, and completed laser electro optics technician school after college. AR 40, 160. She worked for approximately 17 years as an electro optical technician and optical engineer. AR 22, 39, 150. Ms. Madrid filed an application for disability insurance benefits on September 22, 2011, alleging disability since January 1, 2004 due to sleep apnea, back pain, arm pain, leg pain, plantar fasciitis, obesity, esophagus damage, respiratory problems, pancreatitis, depression, a sleeping disorder, high blood pressure, and a thyroid condition. AR 130-36, 159, 200.

         Ms. Madrid filed a previous application for disability insurance benefits on June 19, 2009, which the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied on October 5, 2009. AR 14. Ms. Madrid did not seek reconsideration of that decision. Id. Applying the doctrine of res judicata and declining to reopen her first claim, the ALJ held that Ms. Madrid's current claim could only address the time period spanning from the day after her first claim was denied until the date she was last insured: October 6, 2009 through September 30, 2010. Id. at 14-15.

         The SSA initially denied Ms. Madrid's current claim on June 8, 2012-finding that the evidence failed to show she was disabled at any time prior to the date she was last insured. AR 80-82. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on January 23, 2013. AR 86-87. Ms. Madrid requested a hearing before an administrative judge (“ALJ”). AR 88-89. On January 8, 2014, ALJ Barry O'Melinn held a hearing. AR 29-77.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on February 25, 2014. AR 11-28. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Madrid had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity during the period from her prior disability denial through her last insured date.[3] AR 16. Because Ms. Madrid had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. AR 17-19. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Madrid suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, and back, neck and hip disorders. AR 17. The ALJ also found that Ms. Madrid had the following nonsevere impairments: hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diabetes mellitus, obstructive sleep apnea, plantar fasciitis, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.[4] AR 17. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Madrid's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 19. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Madrid's RFC. AR 19-22. The ALJ found that:

[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work[5] as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) with the following exceptions: The claimant could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to operational control of moving machinery, unprotected heights and hazardous machinery. Further, the claimant should avoid direct contact with latex and adhesives.

AR 19.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Madrid was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. AR 22. At step five, the ALJ found Ms. Madrid was not disabled, concluding that, through the date she was last insured, she still could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as photo copier, cashier II, and office helper. AR 23.

         On August 13, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Madrid's request for review. AR 1-6. Ms. Madrid timely filed her appeal to this Court on September 30, 2015. Doc. 1.

         IV. Ms. Madrid's Claims

         Ms. Madrid raises two arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider the combination of Ms. Madrid's impairments in light of her obesity and (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated Ms. Madrid's credibility. For the reasons discussed below, I find these arguments unpersuasive and recommend that the Court deny the motion to remand.

         A. The ALJ properly considered the combination of Ms. Madrid's impairments, including her obesity.

         Ms. Madrid argues that the ALJ erred by “not properly considering the combination of her impairments.” Doc. 26 at 4. Specifically, Ms. Madrid argues that the ALJ failed to properly analyze, discuss, or explain the effects of Ms. Madrid's obesity on her other impairments. Id. at 5. Ms. Madrid further argues that the ALJ failed to adequately discuss the limitations imposed by her fatigue stemming from her obesity and sleep apnea. Id. at 6. The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ adequately considered the combination of ...

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