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Gabaldon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 18, 2017

JENNIFER M. GABALDON, 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 Jennifer M. Gabaldon's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 16), filed January 25, 2017; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 18), filed March 21, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc. 19), filed April 4, 2017.

         On February 13, 2013, Ms. Gabaldon filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning on February 6, 2013. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 119). Her application was denied initially on May 10, 2013, (AR 95-101), and also upon reconsideration. (AR 102-115). Ms. Gabaldon filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 11, 2013, (AR 144), and a hearing was held on February 26, 2015 before ALJ Donna Montano. (AR 61-94). At the hearing, Ms. Gabaldon and Pamela A. Bowman, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AR 119). Ms. Gabaldon was represented at the hearing by William P. Gordon. (AR 119). ALJ Montano issued her opinion on July 1, 2015, finding that Ms. Gabaldon was not disabled under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). (AR 130). Ms. Gabaldon filed an application for review by the Appeals Council, (AR 57-60), which was denied, (AR 1-7), making the decision of ALJ Montano the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) for purposes of this appeal.

         Through new counsel, Michael Armstrong, Ms. Gabaldon filed an appeal with this Court. (Doc. 1). Ms. Gabaldon argues that the ALJ failed to incorporate portions of the medical opinion of state agency medical consultant Charles Bridges, Ph.D., into Ms. Gabaldon's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (Doc. 16 at 2).

         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 Dr. Bridges' opinion, the Court finds that the Motion should be GRANTED and the case be REMANDED for further proceedings.

         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, 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 burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         III. Background

         Ms. Gabaldon applied for disability insurance benefits due to post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), panic disorder, and major depression. (AR 234). At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Gabaldon had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 6, 2013, the alleged onset date. (AR 121). At step two, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Gabaldon was severely impaired by affective disorder, anxiety disorder, marijuana dependence, and alcohol dependence. (AR 121). At step three, the ALJ explained that she considered whether Ms. Gabaldon's impairments met or satisfied any of the listed impairments. (AR 122-123). The ALJ determined that none of Ms. Gabaldon's impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. (AR 122).

         The ALJ proceeded to step four. She analyzed Ms. Gabaldon's subjective complaints with the objective evidence in the record. (AR 123-128). The ALJ found that Ms. Gabaldon's statements as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible. (AR 126). The ALJ discussed Ms. Gabaldon's testimony, medical records, as well as a report from Dr. Bridges. (AR 123-128). The ALJ ultimately found that Ms. Gabaldon can perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. (AR 123). However, the ALJ determined that Ms. Gabaldon has nonexertional ...


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