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Alvarez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 9, 2017

VERONICA ALVAREZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

          HON. CARMEN E. GARZA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Veronica Alvarez's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 29), filed September 19, 2016; Defendant's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (the “Response”), (Doc. 32), filed December 2, 2016; and Ms. Alvarez's Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with Supportive Memorandum (the “Reply”), (Doc. 34), filed December 16, 2016. District Judge C. LeRoy Hansen referred this case to Magistrate Judge Carmen E. Garza to perform legal analysis and recommend an ultimate disposition of the case. (Doc. 8).

         On May 17, 2007, Veronica Alvarez applied for Supplemental Social Security Income under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning on June 1, 2005. (Administrative Record “AR” 129-131). Ms. Alvarez's claim was initially denied on July 16, 2010, (AR 68-71), and again upon reconsideration on September 15, 2010. (AR 72-75). A request for a hearing was filed, (AR 80-81), and a hearing was held on August 2, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge David R. Wurm. (AR 39-63). Ms. Alvarez, John W. Hickman, an impartial medical expert, and Mary Diane Weber, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. (AR 39-63). Ms. Alvarez was represented at the hearing by non-attorney representative Will Sanchez. (AR 25). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 20, 2011, finding that Ms. Alvarez was not disabled under the SSA. (AR 22-38).

         Through current counsel, Michael D. Armstrong, Ms. Alvarez filed an application for review by the Appeals Council on October 24, 2011, (AR 16-17), which was denied on February 22, 2013, (AR 1-5), making the decision of ALJ Wurm the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” and “SSA”). This Court reviewed the case and remanded it back to the ALJ to “consider the entire record.” (AR 410).

         ALJ Eric Weiss held a second hearing for Ms. Alvarez on August 12, 2015. (AR 336-374). Ms. Alvarez and VE Evelyn Hartman testified at the hearing. (Id.). ALJ Weiss issued a partially favorable decision on August 28, 2015. (AR 312-335). ALJ Weiss found Ms. Alvarez disabled from February 23, 2010 through January 27, 2013. (AR 316). However, the ALJ determined that beginning on January 28, 2013, Ms. Alvarez showed medical improvement related to her ability to work; therefore, her disability ended on January 28, 2013. (AR 316-17). Ms. Alvarez filed an application for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on February 22, 2013, (AR 418-422), making the decision of ALJ Weiss the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal.

         Ms. Alvarez argues that the ALJ committed reversible, legal error by failing to (1) analyze whether her disabling impairments were in “temporary remission, ” and (2) demonstrate that any medical improvement was “related” to her ability to work.

         The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed and considered the entire administrative record. Because the ALJ did not consider whether Ms. Alvarez's medical improvement was based on a temporary remission, the Court RECOMMENDS that the Motion be GRANTED.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 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)). 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 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). 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. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which generally is the ALJ's decision, not the Appeals Council's denial of review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. 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. 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 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 ALJ]'s 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of supplemental security income, a person establishes a disability when 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), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). In light of this definition for disability, a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has been established for evaluating a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant has the burden to show that: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (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 either (3) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[1] 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 the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, he will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. ...


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