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Padilla v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KIRTAN KHALSA, United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 16) filed May 16, 2016, in support of Plaintiff David Padilla's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claims for Title II disability benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits. On September 19, 2016, Plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 23.) The Commissioner filed a response in opposition to the Motion on November 18, 2016 (Doc. 25), and Plaintiff filed a reply in support of it on December 2, 2016. (Doc. 26.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is not well taken and is DENIED.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Claimant David Padilla (“Mr. Padilla”) alleges that he became disabled on September 1, 1994, at twenty-eight years of age, because of hepatitis C and alcoholism. (Tr. 189, 192, 415.[3]) Mr. Padilla graduated from high school, served a short time in the U.S. Navy, and has worked as a general laborer, wheelchair attendant, and shuttle driver. (Tr. 212-213, 300, 503.)

         On January 12, 2009, Mr. Padilla protectively[4] filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, and concurrently filed an application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 189-91, 192-93, 289.) Mr. Padilla's applications were initially denied on April 16, 2009, and denied again at reconsideration on June 26, 2009. (Tr. 80-81, 83-84, 87-93, 95-101.) On August 12, 2009, Mr. Padilla requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 102-03.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on May 21, 2010, and issued an unfavorable decision on September 22, 2011. (Tr. 12-28, 35-78.) The ALJ found Mr. Padilla not disabled at step five of the five-step sequential evaluation process, and determined that, “considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform[.]” (Tr. 27.) On December 12, 2012, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Mr. Padilla's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-11.)

         On January 31, 2013, Mr. Padilla timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (USDC Civ. No. 13-103 GBW, Doc. 1.) The parties fully briefed the issues raised for judicial review. (Id., Docs. 24, 27, 28, 29.) On September 25, 2014, Magistrate Judge Gregory B. Wormuth, presiding by consent, entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order remanding Mr. Padilla's case for further administrative proceedings. (Id., Doc. 30; Tr. 670-92.) Judge Wormuth found that the ALJ had erred in his credibility assessment pertaining to the intensity of Plaintiff's symptoms, and remanded to ensure that the ALJ applied the correct legal standard in reaching a decision based on the facts of the case. (Tr. 690-91.)

         On November 7, 2014, the Appeals Council entered an Order Remanding Case to Administrative Law Judge directing the ALJ to reevaluate Mr. Padilla's credibility. (Tr. 695-96.) The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to offer Mr. Padilla the opportunity for a hearing, to take any further action needed to complete the administrative record, and to issue a new decision. (Id.) On May 29, 2015, ALJ Eric Weiss conducted a hearing pursuant to the Appeals Council's order remanding the case. (Tr. 612-659.) Mr. Padilla appeared in person at the hearing with his attorney Gary Martone. (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Mr. Padilla, (Tr. 617-649), and from an impartial Vocational Expert (“VE”), Karen Provine. (Tr. 649-59.)

         On July 17, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 584-604.) In arriving at his decision, the ALJ determined that Mr. Padilla met the insured status requirement through December 31, 2000.[5] (Tr. 590.) He found that Mr. Padilla engaged in substantial gainful activity in 2006, but that there had been continuous 12-month periods during which Mr. Padilla had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (Id.) The ALJ found that Mr. Padilla suffered from the severe impairments of cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis C, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis in the lower leg, personality disorder, adjustment disorder, and depressive disorder. (Id.) The ALJ further found that these impairments, individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 590-93.)

         Because he found that Mr. Padilla's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ went on to assess Mr. Padilla's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ stated that

[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he is able to lift twenty pounds occasionally and lift or carry ten pounds frequently, and push or pull the same. He is able to walk or stand for six hours per eight-hour day and sit for six hours per eight-hour day with normal breaks. He may occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes and scaffolds. He may occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl. He must avoid more than frequent exposure to extreme cold, unprotected heights and moving machinery. He is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and make commensurate work related decisions and adjust to routine changes in the work setting. He is able to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for two hours at a time throughout the workday with normal breaks.

(Tr. 594.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Padilla was unable to perform any past relevant work, but that considering Mr. Padilla's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Padilla could perform, and he was therefore not disabled. (Tr. 602-04.)

         On December 17, 2015, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Mr. Padilla's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 575-79.) On February 11, 2016, Mr. Padilla timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits is limited to whether the final decision[6] is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards to evaluate the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). In making these determinations, the Court must meticulously examine the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't. of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). The Court will not disturb the Commissioner's final decision if it correctly applies legal standards and is based on substantial evidence in the record.

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The Court's 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, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Zoltanski v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). Thus, the Court “may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, ” even if the Court would have “made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).

         “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). As such, even if a reviewing court agrees with the Commissioner's ultimate decision to deny benefits, it cannot affirm that decision if the reasons for finding a claimant not disabled were arrived at using incorrect legal standards, or are not articulated with sufficient particularity. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). “[T]he record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence.” Id. at 1009-10. Rather, the ALJ need only discuss the evidence supporting his decision, along with any “uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Id.; Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 576 (10th Cir. 2014).

         III. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act if his “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). To qualify for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must establish a severe physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of twelve months, which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1486 (10th Cir. 1993).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show that: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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) meet or equal one of the Listings[7] 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 claimant can show that his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment at step three, the claimant is presumed disabled. However, if at step three the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, before moving on to step four of the analysis, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant medical and other evidence, including all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments whether “severe” or not, and determine what is the “most [the claimant] can still do” in a work setting despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1)-(3), 416.945(a)(1)-(3). This is the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1) & (a)(3), 416.945(a)(1) & (a)(3). The claimant's RFC is used at step four to determine if he can perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e), 416.920(a)(4), 416.920(e). If the claimant establishes that he cannot, the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner at step five of the sequential evaluation process, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.; Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Although the claimant bears the burden of proving disability in a Social Security case, because such proceedings are nonadversarial, “[t]he ALJ has a basic obligation in every social security case to ensure that an adequate record is developed during the disability hearing consistent with the issues raised.” Henrie v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 13 F.3d 359, 360-61 (10th Cir. 1993); Madrid v. Barnhart, 447 F.3d 788, 790 (10th Cir. 2006). “This is true despite the presence of counsel.” Henrie, 13 F.3d at 361. “The duty is one of inquiry and factual development, ” id., “to fully and fairly develop the record as to material issues.” Hawkins v. Chater, 113 F.3d 1162, 1167 (10th Cir. 1997). This may include, for example, an obligation to obtain pertinent medical records or to order a consultative examination. Madrid, 447 F.3d at 791-92. The duty is triggered by “some objective evidence in the record suggesting the existence of a condition which could have a material impact on the disability decision requiring further investigation.” Hawkins, 113 F.3d at 1167.

         IV. Analysis

         Mr. Padilla asserts two arguments in support of his Motion: (1) the ALJ did not properly assess Mr. Padilla's RFC; and, (2) the ALJ erred at step five in finding that other jobs Mr. Padilla can perform exist in significant numbers. (Doc. 23 at 9-15.) The Court finds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in assessing Mr. Padilla's RFC and finding that other jobs Mr. Padilla can perform exist in significant numbers, and substantial evidence supports his determinations.

         A. RFC

         Mr. Padilla argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's assessment of Mr. Padilla's RFC. (Doc. 23 at 9-12.) Specifically, Mr. Padilla argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider Mr. Padilla's ability to sustain work activities and his complaints of fatigue and pain. (Id.) The Commissioner responds that the ALJ carefully considered the entire record, including Mr. Padilla's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms, and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination of Mr. Padilla's RFC. (Doc. 25 at 4-10.)

         Assessing a claimant's RFC is an administrative determination left solely to the Commissioner “based on the entire case record, including objective medical findings and the credibility of the claimant's subjective complaints.” Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1170-71 (10th Cir. 2009); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c) and 416.946(c) (“If your case is at the administrative law judge hearing level or at the Appeals Council review level, the administrative law judge or the administrative appeals judge at the Appeals Council . . . is responsible for assessing your residual functional capacity.”); see also SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *2 (an individual's RFC is an administrative finding). In assessing a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, and review all of the evidence in the record. Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1065 (10th Cir. 2013); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(2) and (3) and 416.945(a)(2) and (3). The ALJ must consider and address medical source opinions and give good reasons for the weight accorded to a treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7. If the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source, the ALJ must explain why the opinion was not adopted. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *7. Further, the ALJ's “RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts . . . and nonmedical evidence.” Wells, 727 F.3d at 1065 (quoting SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7). When the ALJ fails to provide a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion with citations to specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence, the court will conclude that his RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence. See Southard v. Barnhart, 72 F. App'x 781, 784-85 (10th Cir. 2003). The ALJ's decision must be sufficiently articulated so that it is capable of meaningful review. See Spicer v. Barnhart, 64 F. App'x 173, 177-78 (10th Cir. 2003) (unpublished).

         Here, the ALJ's RFC assessment that Mr. Padilla is able to do light unskilled work is sufficiently articulated and supported by substantial evidence. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. The ALJ's RFC assessment included an organized and thorough narrative of Mr. Padilla's impairments, medical history and records, medical source statements, hearing testimony, and third-party statement. (Tr. 594-602.) The ALJ applied the correct legal standards in evaluating the medical evidence by explaining the weight he accorded to the State agency examining medical consultants.[8] See Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1215 (“If an ALJ intends to rely on a nontreating physician or examiner's opinion, he must explain the weight he is giving to it.”) The ALJ discussed the assessments of Dr. Amy Kogut and Dr. Natavan Karimova regarding Mr. Padilla's ability to do work-related physical activities and explained why he determined that Mr. Padilla was capable of doing light work.[9] The ALJ discussed the conflict between Dr. Barbara May-Valencia's and Dr. Cathy Simutis' opinions regarding Mr. Padilla's ability to do work-related mental activities, and adequately explained the weight he accorded each of their opinions and why he accorded less weight to Dr. May-Valencia's opinion.[10] The ALJ properly considered the relevant factors and the evidence in making his credibility determination. Finally, the ALJ thoroughly explained how the evidence supported his conclusions.

         1. Sustained ...

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