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Mehaffey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 25, 2017

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”), filed on September 6, 2016. ECF No. 18. The Commissioner responded on December 2, 2016. ECF No. 23. Plaintiff replied on December 21, 2016. ECF No. 24. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the parties' briefs, the Court RECOMMENDS[1] that Plaintiff's Motion be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on November 15, 1958, and graduated high school in 1976. Administrative R. (“AR”) 229, 234. Upon graduation, Plaintiff enlisted in the U.S. Army, where she completed basic and advanced individual training in 1977. Pl.'s Mot. 3. Plaintiff was honorably discharged in 1979. AR 59.

         From 1979 to 2006, Plaintiff maintained semi-continuous employment. AR 219-26. For example, between 1998 and 2000, she worked two years at Bigelow Components Corporation in New Jersey as a supervisory quality control inspector. AR 41-43.[2] Plaintiff then moved to California, where she resumed employment as a quality control inspector with Mosey's Production Machinists, Inc., from 2000 to 2002. Pl.'s Mot. 4. From there, Plaintiff worked approximately six months in customer service at a dry cleaning business and several months at a casino as a maintenance worker before returning to factory work in 2002 and 2003. Id. Plaintiff was last employed as a home health provider from 2005 to 2006. Id.

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on August 6, 2012. Id. at 3. Plaintiff claimed disability beginning on February 1, 2006, based on emphysema, esophageal spasms, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure. AR 228. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on March 19, 2013, and upon reconsideration on September 13, 2013. AR 75, 76. At her request, Plaintiff received a de novo hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Eric Weiss on May 13, 2015, at which Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared. AR 37-74. On June 5, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). AR 18-29. Plaintiff appealed to the SSA Appeals Council, but it declined review on December 4, 2015. AR 1-4. As a consequence, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a) (2016).

         Plaintiff timely filed her appeal with the U.S. District Court on February 3, 2016. ECF No. 1.

         II. Plaintiff's CLAIMS

         Plaintiff advances two grounds for relief. First, she argues that the ALJ erred by finding that her past work as a customer service representative constituted substantial gainful activity. Pl.'s Mot. 10-12. In addition, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to resolve a conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) concerning the environmental limitations that would attend her return to employment as an inspector. Id. at 12-14.


         A. Standard of Review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[3] The Court's review of that final agency decision is both factual and legal. See 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)) (“The standard of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.”).

         The factual findings at the administrative level are conclusive “if supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 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). 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. Substantial evidence does not, however, require a preponderance of the evidence. See 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)). 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.

         As for the review of the ALJ's legal decisions, the Court reviews “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed “to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).

         Ultimately, 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, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214, Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4) (2016). At the first three steps, the ALJ considers the claimant's current work activity, the medical severity of the claimant's impairments, and the requirements of the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), & Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. If a claimant's impairments are not equal to one of those in the Listing of Impairments, then the ALJ proceeds to the first of three phases of step four and determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). In phase two, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work, and in the third phase, compares the claimant's RFC with the functional requirements of her past relevant work to determine if the claimant is still capable of performing her past work. See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If a claimant is not prevented from performing her past work, then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the question of disability for the first four steps, and then the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Talbot v. Heckler, 814 F.2d 1456, 1460 (10th Cir. 1987). If the claimant cannot return to her past work, then the Commissioner bears the burden, at the fifth step, of showing that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25; see also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988) (discussing the five-step sequential evaluation process in detail).


         The ALJ issued his decision on June 5, 2015. AR 29. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of February 1, 2006. AR 20. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. AR 20-23. There, he found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”); (2) moderate degenerative disc disease at ¶ 4-L5 with moderate lumbar facet arthropathy; and (3) mild degenerative osteoarthrosis of the hips. AR 20. Along with these findings, the ALJ found the following impairments to be non-severe (and provided substantiation for doing so): (1) hypertension; (2) ...

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