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Valenzuela v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 2, 2017

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Emilio Valenzuela's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 16), filed December 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. 18), filed March 3, 2017; and Mr. Valenzuela's Reply in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc. 19), filed March 20, 2017.

         Mr. Valenzuela filed for supplemental security income (“SSI”) on March 7, 2013, (Administrative Record “AR” 121), alleging anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and depression prevented him from working. (AR 70). Mr. Valenzuela's claim was denied initially on May 6, 2013, (AR 78), and again upon reconsideration on August 19, 2013, (AR 88). Mr. Valenzuela requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), (AR 100), which was granted, and a hearing was held on September 24, 2014, before ALJ John Rolph. (AR 30-68). Mr. Valenzuela was represented at the hearing by his current counsel, Michael Armstrong. (AR 30).

         On January 25, 2015, ALJ Rolph issued his decision, finding Mr. Valenzuela not disabled and ineligible for SSI. (AR 13-25). Mr. Valenzuela requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 12), which was denied, (AR 1-3), making ALJ Rolph's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Mr. Valenzuela has appealed to this Court arguing ALJ Rolph erred by improperly rejecting the opinion of Troy Hill, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist.[1] (Doc. 16 at 6). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Dr. Hill's opinion, the Court finds that Plaintiff'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), 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 SSI, 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) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (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 either (3) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he 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. Valenzuela filed for SSI claiming anxiety, PTSD, and depression affected his ability to work. (AR 121). At step one of the SEP, the ALJ determined Mr. Valenzuela had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his application date. (AR 18). At step two, the ALJ concluded Mr. Valenzuela had the following severe impairments: cannabis abuse, depression, anxiety, antisocial personality disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder. (AR 18). Next, at step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Valenzuela's impairments, singly or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing impairment. (AR 19-20).

         According to the ALJ, Mr. Valenzuela has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with several nonexertional limitations. First, Mr. Valenzuela is capable of learning, remembering, and performing only simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that involve simple instructions. (AR 21). Further, the tasks must be performed in a low-stress work environment, i.e. one with regular pace, few changes, and no “‘over the shoulder'” supervision. (AR 21). Finally, Mr. Valenzuela can maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for two to three hours at a time ...

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