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Hibner v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 31, 2017

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


          William P. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge

         Annie Hibner applied for disability insurance benefits on February 4, 2013, alleging disability beginning on November 10, 2010, from eleven conditions, including back pain, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches. (Administrative Record “AR” 166, 204.) After her application was denied at all administrative levels, she brought this proceeding for judicial review. The case is before me now on her Motion to Reverse and Remand, a response filed by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), and Hibner's reply. (Docs. 17, 18, 19.) For the reasons explained below, I grant Hibner's motion and remand the case to the SSA for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Standard of Review

         In reviewing the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision, I must determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008). “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) (quotation omitted). A decision is not based on substantial evidence if other evidence in the record overwhelms it or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence does not, however, require a preponderance of the evidence. U.S. Cellular Tel. of Greater Tulsa, L.L.C. v. City of Broken Arrow, Okla., 340 F.3d 1122, 1133 (10th Cir. 2003). I must meticulously examine the record, but I may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute my discretion for that of the Commissioner. Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. I may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed “to apply the correct legal standards, or to show us that []he has done so . . . .” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).

         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) (2016). If a finding of disability or nondisability is directed at any point, the ALJ will not proceed through the remaining steps. Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24. 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), & 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). The ALJ then determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work in phase two of the fourth step and, in the third phase, compares the claimant's RFC with the functional requirements of her past relevant work to see 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). If a claimant is not prevented from performing her past work, then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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).

         Factual Background

         Hibner is fifty-nine years old. (AR 166.) She has a GED. (AR 205.) The record indicates a work history in administration and purchasing dating back to 1993 (AR 193), which ended in 2010 after she was laid off from her job, fell, and injured herself (AR 39-40).

         I do not address everything in the record but rather target my factual discussion to those facts necessary to the disposition of this case.

         After her fall in 2011, Hibner underwent two surgeries: one for her cervical spine on August 23, 2011, and the other for her lumbar spine on October 27, 2011. (AR 319, 370.) She attended twelve physical therapy sessions between February 2012 and May 2012. (See AR 390-407.) At discharge, her therapist concluded that her pain was “consistent with chronic pain syndrome rather that mechanical low back pain.” (AR 406.)

         Treatment records from William Johnson, M.D., Hibner's treating physician for pain management, begin in August 2012 and continue until November 2015. (AR 408-434, 452-472, 475-492, 516-526.) Dr. Johnson addressed Hibner's “long complicated pain management problem list” (AR 455) with a variety of treatments, including trigger point injections (AR 411, 432, 466, 478, 487, 521) and assorted physical therapies (see, e.g., AR 411, 430). On April 15, 2013, Dr. Johnson completed a Treating Physician's Migraine Headache Form which notes, among other things, that Hibner experiences headaches three times per week that “average 6-8 hrs; some > 24 hrs, ” the migraines “interfere with ability to work, ” and that Hibner misses an average of three days of work per week. (AR 434.)

         On April 7, 2013, Hibner's friend and former neighbor, Theresa Phillips, completed an Adult Third Party Function Report. (AR 240-249.)

         Eligio Padilla, Ph.D., conducted a mental status examination on May 25, 2013. (AR 444-448.) His diagnosis included twelve disorders, one of which was “migraines.” (AR 447.)

         Jon Brown, D.O., an agency consultative examiner, also examined Hibner on May 25, 2013. (AR 436-442.) Dr. Brown noted, among other things, Hibner's history of migraines and that she “reports that this affect[s] her ability to work ...

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