United States District Court, D. New Mexico
GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED ST'ATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion
to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, With
Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”), filed on
August 5, 2016. ECF No. 24. The Commissioner responded on
October 7, 2016. ECF No. 25. Plaintiff replied on October 21,
2016. ECF No. 26. Having meticulously reviewed the entire
record and the parties' pleadings, the Court finds that
Plaintiff's Motion is not well taken and that the
Administrative Law Judge's
(“ALJ's”)'s ruling should be
AFFIRMED. Therefore, and for the following
reasons, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's
was born on February 6, 1962, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Administrative R. (“AR”) 201-02. She graduated
from high school and obtained additional vocational training
as a nurse's assistant, phlebotomist, and teacher's
assistant. AR 239. In the last fifteen years, she reported
working as both a clerk and an educational assistant. AR 240.
As a clerk, she assisted individuals with completing food
stamp applications, did computer checks to verify their
qualifications for food assistance, handled filing, and
engaged in miscellaneous office work. AR 254. As a teaching
assistant, she spent her time entirely in the classroom
assisting with the instruction of students. AR 255.
filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) alleging disability beginning on July 1,
2012, due to fibromyalgia, back pain, and depression. AR 87.
The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied
Plaintiff's application initially on January 25, 2013,
and upon reconsideration on May 9, 2013. AR 87-98, 125-36. At
her request, Plaintiff received a de novo hearing
before ALJ Ann Farris on March 25, 2014, at which Plaintiff,
her non-attorney representative, and a vocational expert
(“VE”) appeared. AR 61-84. On September 26, 2014,
the ALJ issued her decision, finding that Plaintiff was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
(“the Act”). AR 42-56. Plaintiff submitted
additional medical evidence to the SSA Appeals Council, but
it declined review on January 11, 2016. AR 8-33. As a
consequence, the ALJ's decision became the final decision
of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a) (2016).
timely filed her appeal with the U.S. District Court on
February 18, 2016. ECF No. 1.
advances three grounds for relief. First, she argues that the
ALJ failed to develop the record. Pl.'s Mot. 8-9, ECF No.
24. Next, she avers that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the
opinion of three different health providers. Id. at
10-14. Lastly, she contends the ALJ's “step
five” decision is not supported by substantial
evidence. Id. at 14-17.
Standard of Review
the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for
review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of
the agency. The Court's review of that final
agency decision is both factual and legal. See Maes v.
Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing
Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)) (“The standard
of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct
legal standards were applied and whether the decision is
supported by substantial evidence.”)
factual findings at the administrative level are conclusive
“if supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) (2012). “Substantial evidence is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v.
Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004);
Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir.
2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th
Cir. 2003). An ALJ's 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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. Substantial evidence does
not, however, require a preponderance of the evidence.
See 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)). A court should meticulously review
the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence
nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
the review of the ALJ's legal decisions, the Court
reviews “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of
law that must be followed in weighing particular types of
evidence in disability cases.” Lax, 489 F.3d
at 1084. The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed
“to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . .
that she has done so.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92
F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).
if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings and
the correct legal standards were applied, the
Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not
entitled to relief. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214, Doyal, 331 F.3d
Sequential Evaluation Process
has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to
determine disability. See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540
U.S. 20, 24 (2003); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4) (2016). At the first three steps, the ALJ
considers the claimant's current work activity, the
medical severity of the claimant's impairments, and the
requirements of the Listing of Impairments. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), & Pt.
404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. If a claimant's impairments
are not equal to one of those in the Listing of Impairments,
then the ALJ proceeds to the first of three phases of step
four and determines the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”). See Winfrey, 92 F.3d
at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). In
phase two, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands
of the claimant's past relevant work, and in the third
phase, compares the claimant's RFC with the functional
requirements of her past relevant work to determine if the
claimant is still capable of performing her past work.
See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If a claimant is not prevented from
performing her past work, then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). The claimant bears the
burden of proof on the question of disability for the first
four steps, and then the burden of proof shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482
U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Talbot v. Heckler, 814 F.2d
1456, 1460 (10th Cir. 1987).
claimant cannot return to her past work, then the
Commissioner bears the burden at the fifth step of showing
that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
See Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25; see also
Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th
Cir. 1988) (discussing the five-step sequential evaluation
process in detail).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
issued her decision on September 26, 2014. AR 56. At step
one, she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of
July 1, 2012. AR 44. Although Plaintiff worked for
sixty-eight (68) days as a lunch server in the summer of
2013, the ALJ found the endeavor to be an “unsuccessful
work attempt” and proceeded to step two. AR 44. There,
she found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe
impairments: (1) somatoform disorder; (2) major depressive
disorder; and (3) fibromyalgia. AR 44. In tandem with these
findings, the ALJ also found Plaintiff's dyshydrotic
eczema and anxiety to be non-severe and provided her
rationale for finding them so. AR 44-47.
three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's
impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically
equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 47-49. This finding included
an analysis of Plaintiff's mental impairments, which the
ALJ found did “not meet or medically equal the criteria
of Listing Sections 12.04 (affective disorders) and/or 12.07
(somatoform disorders).” AR 47-49.
none of Plaintiff's impairments satisfied an applicable
Listing, the ALJ moved on to step four and assessed
Plaintiff's RFC. AR 49-54. “After careful
consideration of the record, ” the ALJ determined that
“[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work. [Plaintiff] can frequently handle and
finger. [Plaintiff] can make simple decisions with few
workplace changes.” AR 49. In reaching this conclusion,
the ALJ accorded ...