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Etcitty v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 17, 2017

BARBARA ETCITTY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 18] (“Motion”), filed on May 24, 2016. The Commissioner responded on August 18, 2016. [Doc. 21]. Plaintiff replied on September 1, 2016. [Doc. 22]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 9]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that substantial evidence does not support the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) reasons for rejecting the opinion of the treating physician. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings.

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[2] 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 Commissioner'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.

         “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. The 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 [Commissioner]'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] 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)).

         “The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         In light of this definition for disability, a five-step sequential evaluation process 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 sequential process, the claimant has the burden to show that: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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”[3] 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. At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on July 12, 2012. Tr. 25. She alleged a disability-onset date of May 1, 2012. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. Id. ALJ Michael S. Hertzig held a hearing on April 2, 2014. Id. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and her adult daughter, Eileen Harry. Tr. 25, 60. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, Ms. Harry, and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Mary Diane Weber. Tr. 25, 60-101.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on May 13, 2014. Tr. 34. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of her alleged disability. Tr. 27. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. There, he found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “seronegative rheumatoid arthritis and anemia with status post hysterectomy[.]” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 28.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 28-33. In doing so, the ALJ rejected the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Erin Nealon, D.O., as to Plaintiff's functional limitations and, instead, adopted the opinions of the non-examining physicians, Drs. Whaley and Malak. Tr. 29, 30, 32-33 (ALJ's rejecting Dr. Nealon's opinions); Tr. 32 (ALJ's adopting the opinions of Drs. Whaley and Malak). The ALJ found that “[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with occasional climbing.” Tr. 28. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 33. At step five, the ALJ found that, based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience and the testimony of the VE, Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 33-34. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, during the relevant time period, and he denied the claims. Tr. 34.

         After the ALJ denied the claim, Plaintiff submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council. Tr. 2. The Appeals Council accepted the evidence and made it part of the record. Tr. 2, 5, 711-30. Nevertheless, the Appeals Council found that it “[did] not provide a basis for changing the [ALJ]'s decision” and denied Plaintiff's request for review ...


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