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Galindo v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 3, 2017

GONZALA GALINDO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Gonzala Galindo's Motion to Reverse Commissioner's Administrative Decision and Remand Claim (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”); and Ms. Galindo's Reply to Defendant's Brief (the “Reply”), (Doc. 21), filed April 6, 2017.

         Ms. Galindo filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on February 17, 2012, alleging disability beginning February 13, 2012. (Administrative Record “AR” 19). Ms. Galindo claimed arthritis, headaches, memory loss, and back pain limited her ability to work. (AR 203). Ms. Galindo's applications were denied initially on May 18, 2012, and upon reconsideration on August 16, 2012. (AR 19). Ms. Galindo requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on October 17, 2013, before ALJ Myriam Fernandez Rice. (AR 19). Ms. Galindo and Nicole King, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and Sofia Reyes McDermott, an attorney, represented Ms. Galindo at the hearing. (AR 423-25).

         On April 15, 2014, ALJ Fernandez Rice issued her decision, finding Ms. Galindo not disabled at any time between her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 13-26). Ms. Galindo requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 12) which was denied, (AR 3-10), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Ms. Galindo now argues that the ALJ erred in considering and weighing the opinion of Ms. Galindo's treating physician, Eduardo Castrejon, M.D. (Doc. 16-1 at 5-7). 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 both her consideration and weighing of Dr. Castrejon'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 supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, 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

         As discussed, Ms. Galindo claimed arthritis, headaches, memory loss, and back pain prevented her from working beginning February 13, 2012. (AR 203). At step one, the ALJ determined Ms. Galindo had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since that date. (AR 21).

         At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Galindo's only severe impairment was degenerative arthritis. (AR 21). The ALJ noted Ms. Galindo was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression and was assessed as having a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 60, indicating moderate symptoms of difficulty in social and occupational settings. (AR 22); see Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1162 (10th Cir. 2012). Nonetheless, the ALJ considered Ms. Galindo's symptoms more consistent with only mild symptoms. (AR 22). Proceeding to step ...


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