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Montoya v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 30, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Vanessa Lynne Montoya's Motion to Reverse and Remand (Doc. 18), which was fully briefed September 7, 2016. Docs. 22, 23, 24. 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 either to incorporate, or to explain why he rejected, limitations assessed by the two consulting psychologists who examined Ms. Montoya. The ALJ also failed to adequately develop the record to determine whether Ms. Montoya suffers from an intellectual disability that meets or equals the requirements of a Listing. I therefore GRANT Ms. Montoya'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. Montoya was born in 1986 and completed some middle school. AR 42-44, 71.[4] She testified that she attempted to attend a high school for six or seven months, but she dropped out “because [she] didn't understand it.” AR 43. She testified she was in special education the entire time she was in school. AR 44-45. She was in special education because she could not “do math, ” nor could she “read or write.” AR 45. She believed that she may have attained a second or third grade reading level, and thought that her school should have records of that. Id.

         Ms. Montoya had worked in the past for several fast food restaurants, but she was fired for various reasons. See AR 46, 51-52, 247-48, 283. She was self-employed as a house cleaner from about 2010 to 2012. See AR 60, 248-49, 283. Beginning in 2013, she worked part-time as a care giver for her mother and step-father. See AR 32-34, 245-46.

         Ms. Montoya filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on January 10, 2013, alleging disability since December 1, 2011, due to a torn ligament and water in both knees, mental problems, a learning disability, and stroke. AR 223- 29, 258. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on July 26, 2013. AR 155-61. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on September 24, 2013. AR 164-73. Ms. Montoya requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 174-76. On April 15, 2015, ALJ Eric Weiss held a hearing. AR 27-68. ALJ Weiss issued his unfavorable decision on June 5, 2015. AR 8-26.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Montoya had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since December 1, 2011. AR 13. Because Ms. Montoya had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Montoya suffered from the following severe impairments: left knee anterior cruciate ligament tear, medial meniscus tear, lateral meniscus tear status post ACL reconstruction hamstring autograft, medial meniscus repair, and partial lateral menisectomy; learning disability in reading and mathematics; depressive disorder; and paranoid personality traits. AR 13-14. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Montoya's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 14-16. The ALJ specifically considered and rejected the possibility that Ms. Montoya's mental impairments, singly or in combination, met or medically equaled the criteria of Listings 12.04 and 12.06, relating to depressive disorders and anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, respectively. Id. The ALJ did not consider whether Ms.

         Montoya's mental impairments met or medically equaled the criteria of Listing 12.05, relating to intellectual disorders, despite Ms. Montoya's request that he do so. See AR 14-16, 30, 66, 329-30.

         Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Montoya's RFC. AR 16-19. The ALJ found that:

the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant is able to lift 20 pounds occasionally and lift or carry 10 pounds frequently, and push or pull the same. She may walk or stand for 6 hours per 8 hour day and sit for 6 hours per 8 hour day with normal breaks. She may occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She may occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl. She must avoid more than frequent exposure to moving machinery and unprotected heights. She is able to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions and make commensurate work related decisions. She is able to maintain concentration, persistence and pace for 2 hours at a time with normal breaks throughout the workday. She is limited to occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors but no interaction with the public. In addition, I have determined the claimant has the ability to perform no more than the full range of light work with above-stated limitations or extensions. Unless otherwise noted, the claimant can lift, carry, push or pull no more than 20 pounds at a time and frequently lift, carry, push or pull objects weighing up to 10 pounds. “Frequent” means occurring from one-third to two-thirds of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can walk off-and-on for no more than about six hours during an eight-hour workday, stand off-and-on for no more than about six hours during an eight-hour workday, and can stand or walk off-and-on for a total of about six hours during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can sit for approximately six hours total during an eight-hour workday. The claimant may stoop occasionally, which means stooping for very little up to one third of an eight-hour workday.

AR 16.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Montoya was unable to perform her past relevant work as a house cleaner and “home attendant.” AR 20, 59-61. The ALJ found Ms. Montoya not disabled at step five, concluding that she still could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a “cleaner, ” a “marker, ” and a “hand presser.” AR 20-21.

         Ms. Montoya requested review by the Appeals Council, which, on December 3, 2015, denied the request. AR 1-6, 344-50. Ms. Montoya timely ...

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