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Sherman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 30, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Gregory Paul Sherman's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed November 23, 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. 19), filed January 20, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supportive Memorandum (the “Reply”), (Doc. 22), filed February 9, 2017.

         Mr. Sherman applied for disability insurance benefits on March 9, 2012, (Administrative Record “AR” 194-95), and for supplemental security income on March 26, 2012. (AR 196-202). Both applications were denied initially on November 28, 2012, (AR 68-90), and upon reconsideration on March 29, 2013. (AR 94-121). Mr. Sherman requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), (AR 136), which was held on August 26, 2014, before ALJ Ann Farris. (AR 32). Mr. Sherman, his father, and Nicole B. King, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. (AR 32-33).

         On October 22, 2014, ALJ Farris issued her written decision finding Mr. Sherman not disabled from his amended alleged onset date, November 21, 2010, through the date of her decision. (AR 13-26). Mr. Sherman then filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on February 16, 2016, making ALJ Farris' decision Defendant's final decision for purposes of this appeal. (AR 1).

         Mr. Sherman now argues the ALJ committed reversible legal error by incorrectly evaluating medical opinions in the record. 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 failed to properly follow the correct legal standards, the Court finds Mr. Sherman's Motion should be GRANTED.

         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 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). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or show . . . that she has done so, are grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. 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) (2015), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. 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 the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record 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 claimant establishes a disability when 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) (2015), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012).

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (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”[1] 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); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the Commissioner must show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Mr. Sherman filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income claiming bipolar disorder affected his ability to work. (AR 68). At step one, the ALJ found Mr. Sherman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged disability onset date. (AR 18). At step two, the ALJ determined Mr. Sherman has two severe impairments: bipolar disorder and Asperger's syndrome. (AR 18). At step three, the ALJ concluded Mr. Sherman's impairments did not, singly or in combination, meet or medically equal a Listing impairment. (AR 19).

         Proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Mr. Sherman has the RFC to perform work at all exertional levels, but that Mr. Sherman has the non-exertional limitations of being able to perform “simple and some detailed, but not complex tasks, with no public contact and no more than occasional, superficial interaction with coworkers.” (AR 20). Although the ALJ found that Mr. Sherman's impairments could be expected to cause his symptoms, she found Mr. Sherman's statements were not entirely credible regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his ...

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