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Miller v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 2, 2017

ELAINE MARIE MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Elaine Marie Miller's Motion to Reverse for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, to Remand for Rehearing (the “Motion”), (Doc. 20), filed on October 20, 2016; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 24), filed January 20, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply to Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 25), filed February 2, 2017.

         On June 2, 2014, Ms. Miller applied for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2012. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 152-157). Her application was denied on September 3, 2014, (AR 95-98), and also upon reconsideration on April 14, 2015. (AR 102-104). Ms. Miller filed her request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 24, 2015, (AR 105), and a hearing was set for January 7, 2016, before ALJ Ann Farris. (AR 117-143, 34-64). Ms. Miller and Mary D. Weber, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. (AR 34-64). Ms. Miller was represented by attorney Michelle Baca at the hearing. (AR 18). ALJ Farris issued her opinion on January 29, 2016, finding that Ms. Miller was not disabled under 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g) since May 1, 2014. (AR 28). Ms. Miller filed an application for review by the Appeals Council, (AR 7-14) which was denied, (AR 1-6), making the decision of ALJ Farris the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) for purposes of this appeal.

         Ms. Miller filed her Complaint before this Court through new counsel, Francesca J. MacDowell. (Doc. 1). Ms. Miller argues that the ALJ committed reversible, legal error by failing to: (1) use the correct standards in weighing the treating and examining source evidence; (2) form a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in accordance with the substantial evidence; and (3) resolve conflicts between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). (Doc. 20 at 3).

         The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and relevant law. In addition, the Court has meticulously reviewed and considered the entire administrative record. Because the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinions in the record, the Court finds that the Motion should be GRANTED and the case be REMANDED for further proceedings.

         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 disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, a person establishes a disability when he 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 to determine whether a person is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. 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) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[1] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “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, she 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 his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         III. Background

         Ms. Miller initially applied for supplemental security income alleging post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (AR 66). At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Miller had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2014. (AR 20). At step two, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Miller was severely impaired by fibromyalgia, left shoulder dislocation, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD. (AR 20).

         At step three, the ALJ explained that she considered whether Ms. Miller's impairments satisfied or met any of the listed impairments. (AR 20). She determined that none of Ms. Miller's impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed ...


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