United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Fashing United States Magistrate Judge
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.
Standard of Review
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). 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.
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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
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. §§
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 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.
Background and Procedural History
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Ms. Stanley's Claims
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).