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Stanley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 24, 2017

ELVA JEAN STANLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Elva Jean Stanley's Motion to Reverse and Remand (Doc. 20), which was fully briefed June 29, 2016. See Docs. 24, 26, 27. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 11, 12. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis. I therefore GRANT Ms. Stanley's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[2] is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008). 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). “The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. A 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.” Id. While the Court may not reweigh 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] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[3] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or 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 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Stanley was born in 1971, completed an associate's degree in accounting, and worked for approximately ten years in health care services as a communications coordinator and a receptionist. AR 29, 30, 32.[4] Ms. Stanley initially injured her back at work in 1998, when a chair rolled out from under her, causing her to fall hard on her buttocks on the floor. AR 656. She stopped working on September 11, 2007 because of her back pain and also because she had difficulty getting along with her supervisor. AR 33, 198, 205. Ms. Stanley filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on December 31, 2012, alleging disability since September 11, 2007 due to lower back problems. AR 198-210, 285.[5] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on March 12, 2013. AR 54-77. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on July 31, 2013. AR 80-103. Ms. Stanley requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 125-27. On June 26, 2014, ALJ Christopher H. Juge, in Metairie, Louisiana, held a hearing via video teleconference. AR 26-51. Ms. Stanley appeared from Arizona, represented by attorney Michelle Baca. AR 28. ALJ Juge issued his unfavorable decision on August 27, 2014. AR 8-25.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Stanley was insured through December 30, 2012. AR 13. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Stanley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 11, 2007. Id. Because Ms. Stanley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. AR 13-14. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Stanley suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and obesity. AR 13. The ALJ found Ms. Stanley's depression to be non-severe. AR 14. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Stanley's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 14-15. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Stanley's RFC. AR 15-18. The ALJ found Ms. Stanley had the RFC to perform the full range of light and sedentary work. AR 15.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Stanley was able to perform her past relevant work (“PRW”) as a receptionist. AR 18. Even though the ALJ found that Ms. Stanley could do her PRW at step four, the ALJ also made “alternative findings for step five, ” finding Ms. Stanley not disabled under Medical-Vocational Rule 202.21. AR 19. On September 23, 2014, Ms. Stanley requested review by the Appeals Council. AR 7. On August 17, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-6. Ms. Stanley timely filed her appeal to this Court on September 22, 2015. Doc. 1.

         IV. Ms. Stanley's Claims

         Ms. Stanley raises several arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) the ALJ failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis; (2) the ALJ failed to support his RFC finding with substantial evidence; (3) the ALJ failed to weigh the opinion of treating psychiatrist Dr. Wong; (4) the ALJ failed to adequately consider her limitations from depression and pain; (5) the ALJ considered improper factors in his RFC determination; (6) the ALJ erred at step four by not assessing the duties of Ms. Stanley's past relevant work; (7) the ALJ erred in relying on the grids at step five without considering Ms. Stanley's nonexertional impairments. Because I remand based on the ALJ's failure to do a proper function-by-function analysis, I do not address the other alleged errors, which “may be affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         V. ...


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