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McDaniel v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 2, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Yvonne McDaniel seeks review of the Social Security Administration's decision concluding she is not disabled under Sections 202(e), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(e), 423(d), 1382c. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. §636(c)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered McDaniel's motion to reverse and/or remand [Doc. 17], the Commissioner's response in opposition [Doc. 21], McDaniel's reply [Doc 24], as well as meticulously reviewed the administrative record. The Court now grants the motion and remands the matter to the agency for further proceedings.


         A. Plaintiff's History

         McDaniel is now 55. At the time of her alleged disability onset date, December 6, 2004, she was 44 years old, [1] and by the time the ALJ rendered his decision, McDaniel was 53. In social-security parlance, McDaniel is a “person closely approaching advanced age.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d) (requiring consideration of age along with a severe impairment(s) and limited work experience may seriously affect your ability to adjust to other work”).

         McDaniel completed only the sixth grade and gave birth to her daughter, Kymberly, when she was 15. She married Johnnie McDaniel at that age, and the two remained together until his death from liver cancer in 2004. Kymberly lives with McDaniel at McDaniel's home and according to McDaniel, takes care of her. McDaniel has limited work experience, most recently as a housecleaner and previously as a sales clerk. She has not sought employment since before Johnnie died because of her limited education as well as physical and mental difficulties.

         After her husband died, McDaniel was diagnosed as suffering from agoraphobia. She further lists “generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headaches, and significant back pain” as preventing her from obtaining and maintaining employment.

         B. Procedural History

         On November 14, 2011, McDaniel filed an application for Disabled Widows Benefits as well as a prospective application for supplement security income. McDaniel alleged a December 6, 2004 onset date, the day her husband died. The applications were denied both initially and on reconsideration. On May 8, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Michael S. Hertzig conducted a hearing pursuant to McDaniel's request for review. McDaniel appeared pro se with her daughter, Kymberly. Both testified during the 30-minute hearing. The ALJ issued a written decision on June 16, 2014 denying benefits because McDaniel “has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time through the date of this decision.” On March 25, 2016, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's when the Appeals Council denied McDaniel's request for review. McDaniel filed the instant complaint in this Court on May 27, 2016 seeking reversal of that determination.

         II. STANDARD

         This Court reviews the agency's decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence and the agency applied the correct legal standards. See Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). If substantial evidence supports the conclusion that the plaintiff is not disabled and the ALJ followed the correct legal standard, the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. See Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). The term “substantial evidence” means that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1118 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court may not, however, re-weigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for Commissioner's. See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005); Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). Even if the Court could reach the opposite conclusion, the decision must stand if the record as a whole is not “overwhelmed by other evidence” to the contrary or unless a “mere scintilla” supports it. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Disability Framework

         The Court's main task in reviewing the ALJ's decision is to determine whether the plaintiff is disabled as defined under the Social Security Act. “Disability” under the Act is a plaintiff's inability “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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). As here, when the plaintiff's application is denied initially and on reconsideration, the ALJ employs a five-step sequential analysis to evaluate disability. Steps one through four require the plaintiff to prove (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she has a “severe medically determinable” “impairment” “or a combination of impairments” that either has lasted or is expected to last at least one year; (3) the plaintiff's alleged impairments meet or equal one of the presumptively disability impairments the agency has listed; and (4) she is unable to perform ...

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