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Gurule v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 27, 2017

RICARDO GURULE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THE HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 19), filed October 31, 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. 23), filed January 30, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc. 24), filed February 14, 2017.

         On February 8, 2012, Mr. Gurule filed an application for disability insurance benefits and on May 26, 2012, he filed an application for supplemental security income benefits. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 18). Mr. Gurule alleged disability beginning on December 1, 2009 in both applications. (AR 18). His applications were denied initially on August 15, 2012, (AR 114-117, 118-120), and again upon reconsideration on February 21, 2013. (AR 123-124, 125-127). Mr. Gurule filed his request for a hearing on March 21, 2013, (AR 128-129), and a hearing was held on February 20, 2014 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michelle K. Lindsay. (AR 32-71). Mr. Gurule and Judith Beard, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. (AR 32-71). Mr. Gurule was represented at the hearing by attorney Christopher S. O'Connor. (AR 18).

         The ALJ issued her opinion on June 26, 2014, finding that Mr. Gurule was not disabled. (AR 15-31). Mr. Gurule filed an application for review by the Appeals Council, which was summarily denied, (AR 7-9), making the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) for purposes of this appeal.

         Through new counsel, Kevin Sanders and Michael Armstrong, Mr. Gurule argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to: (1) perform a function-by-function analysis of work-related abilities; (2) formulate a credibility analysis that is supported by substantial evidence; (3) find that Mr. Gurule was severely impaired by foot problems and obesity; (4) develop the administrative record; and (5) rely on an adequate number of representative jobs. (Doc. 19).

         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 commit reversible legal error and supported her decision with substantial evidence, the Court orders that the Motion be DENIED and the case be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         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 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) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; that (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 residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         III. Background

         Mr. Gurule initially applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income alleging that he suffers from a “L4-[L]5 herniated disc, bulging, pain in legs, and carpal tun[n]el.” (AR 72).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr. Gurule met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2014, and found that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. (AR 20). At step two, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Gurule was severely impaired by degenerative disc and facet disease of the lumbar spine, right rotator cuff tear, anxiety, and depression. (AR 21).

         At step three, the ALJ considered whether Mr. Gurule's impairments solely or in combination met or satisfied any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. (AR 21). The ALJ ultimately determined that none of Mr. Gurule's impairments, solely or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 21).

         The ALJ proceeded to step four. First, she analyzed Mr. Gurule's subjective complaints of his symptoms and the objective medical evidence in the record. (AR 23-25). The ALJ found that Mr. Gurule's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely credible. (AR 24-25). The ALJ discussed Mr. Gurule's medical records and considered the reports and opinions of agency medical consultants Stephen A. Whaley, M.D., and James Wellons, M.D. (AR 24-25).

         The ALJ ultimately found that Mr. Gurule has the RFC to perform light work, except he can only occasionally climb stairs and ramps. (AR 23). The ALJ additionally limited him to occasionally stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and frequently reaching overhead with the dominant upper extremity. (AR 23). Further, the ALJ limited Mr. Gurule to understanding, remembering, and carrying out only simple instructions; maintaining attention and concentration to perform simple tasks for two hours at a time without redirection; and having only occasional contact with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors. (AR 23).

         Next, the ALJ considered whether Mr. Gurule was capable of doing any of his past relevant work. (AR 25). The ALJ explained that Mr. Gurule's past relevant work includes the jobs of rough carpenter and dry wall applicator, and found that in light of the RFC finding, Mr. Gurule was not capable of performing his past work. (AR 25).

         At step five, the ALJ inquired whether Mr. Gurule would be able to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 26-27). The ALJ noted that Mr. Gurule was 49 years old on the alleged disability onset date and was therefore classified as a “younger individual” in accordance with the Regulations. (AR 26). The ALJ also determined that Mr. Gurule has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. (AR 26).

         The VE testified at the hearing that an individual with Mr. Gurule's same age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform the jobs of assembler/small products, inspector/hand packager, and electronics worker. (AR 26-27). Based on this analysis, the ALJ concluded that because Mr. Gurule is capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, he is not disabled pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g). (AR 27).

         IV. Analysis

         Mr. Gurule argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to: (1) perform a function-by-function analysis of work-related abilities; (2) formulate a credibility analysis that is supported by substantial evidence; (3) find that Mr. Gurule was severely impaired by foot problems and obesity; (4) develop the administrative record; and (5) rely on an adequate number of representative jobs. (Doc. 19 at 2). The Commissioner ...


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