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Serafin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 13, 2017

ROGER M. SERAFIN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Roger M. Serafin’s Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 18), filed November 22, 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. 22), filed February 24, 2017; and Plaintiff’s Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc. 24), filed March 15, 2017. Additionally before the Court is Mr. Serafin’s Unopposed Motion to Extend Briefing Deadlines (the “Motion to Extend Deadlines”), (Doc. 23), filed March 10, 2017.

         On September 3, 2009, Mr. Serafin filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning on August 10, 2009. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 125-126). His application was denied initially on March 28, 2010, (AR 75-78), and also upon reconsideration. (AR 80-82). Mr. Serafin filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 9, 2010, (AR 85-86), and a hearing was held on October 13, 2011 before ALJ Ann Farris. (AR 35-70). At the hearing, Mr. Serafin and Thomas A. Greiner, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AR 24). Mr. Serafin was represented at the hearing by non-attorney representative John Bishop. (AR 24). ALJ Farris issued her opinion on January 5, 2012, finding that Mr. Serafin was not disabled under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). (AR 34). Mr. Serafin filed an application for review by the Appeals Council, (AR 20), 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.

         Through new counsel, Michael Armstrong, Mr. Serafin filed an appeal with this Court. On August 26, 2014, Chief United States Magistrate Judge Karen B. Molzen filed a Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition (“PFRD”), recommending that Mr. Serafin’s case be remanded to the Commissioner for further review. (AR 579). Judge Molzen found that ALJ Farris (1) failed to perform a proper function-by-function analysis; (2) her residual functional capacity ("RFC”) was not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) she failed to make the required findings as to the demands of Mr. Serafin’s past work and his ability to perform that work. (AR 578-579). Senior United States District Judge C. LeRoy Hansen adopted Judge Molzen’s PFRD on September 16, 2014 and the case was remanded to the Commissioner. (AR 567).

         On remand, the Appeals Council directed ALJ Farris to consolidate the September 3, 2009 claim with a claim filed by Mr. Serafin on March 1, 2014. (AR 467). ALJ Farris held a second hearing on October 22, 2015, (AR 489-534), at which Mr. Serafin and Karen N. Provine, an impartial VE, testified. (AR 467). ALJ Farris issued her opinion on December 15, 2015, again finding that Mr. Serafin was not disabled under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         Mr. Serafin filed his new Complaint with this Court on April 11, 2016. (Doc. 1). Mr. Serafin argues that the ALJ (1) omitted limitations found by the reviewing doctor without explanation; (2) did not give good reasons for discounting the opinion of Deborah Jarmul, Physician’s Assistant-Certified (“PA-C”); (3) failed to develop the record with respect to Mr. Serafin’s physical and mental impairments; and (4) based her opinion on unreliable vocational data. (Doc. 18 at 1).

         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 analyze and weigh the medical opinions in the record, the Court finds that the Motion should be GRANTED and the case be REMANDED for further proceedings. Additionally, because Mr. Serafin filed his Reply, the Court will DENY AS MOOT his Motion to Extend Deadlines.

         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 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), 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) 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 (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); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, he will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the ...

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