Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Montoya v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 29, 2016

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS 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 Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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).

         Plaintiff timely filed her appeal with the U.S. District Court on February 18, 2016. ECF No. 1.


         Plaintiff 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.


         A. Standard of Review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[1] 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.”)

         The 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 at 1214.

         As for 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).

         Ultimately, 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 at 760.

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The SSA 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).

         If the 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 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.

         At step 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.

         Because 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 ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.