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Rocha v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 21, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Carlos Eliazar Rocha, pro se, seeks review of the Social Security Administration's decision concluding he is not disabled under Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(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 Rocha's motion to reverse or remand [Doc. 20], the Commissioner's response in opposition [Doc. 22], as well as meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because Rocha engaged in substantial gainful activity and the ALJ's determination is otherwise supported by substantial evidence and legally sound, the Court DENIES Rocha's motion and AFFIRMS the agency's decision.


         A. Plaintiff's History

         Rocha is forty six. [AR 40]. At the time of Rocha's alleged disability onset date, September 12, 2012, he was forty two and a “younger person” in Social-Security parlance. [AR 40]; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c) (explaining that for individuals under 50, the agency “generally do[es] not consider that a [person's] age will seriously affect [his] ability to adjust to other work”). In terms of education, Rocha completed the tenth grade. Rocha is divorced and the father of three minor and three adult children. [AR 40-41]. His ten-year-old daughter lives with him. [AR 40-41]. As of January 6, 2015, Rocha worked as a truck driver for Raks Building Supply, a full-time position that he has held continuously since 2013. Rocha's previous employment history includes positions as a cashier, loader, and RV salesman.

         As the basis for seeking benefits, Rocha alleges that he suffers from pulmonary emboli (blood clots in the lungs), gastric reflux, high blood pressure, anxiety with panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Rocha asserts that he is disabled because he is constantly in the emergency room with shortness of breath and tingling and numbness in his hands. [AR 65]. Rocha further reports that he cannot be in a room with people because “it makes [him] nervous, dizzy, makes [his] hands cold and clammy and feels like [he] will faint at times.” [AR 65].

         B. Procedural History

         On November 8, 2012, Rocha filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. [AR 177-89]. Rocha alleged a September 12, 2012 onset date, the day he says he no longer was able to work. [AR 177; 184]. The applications were denied both initially and on reconsideration. [AR 65-108]. On January 6, 2015, ALJ Charlotte Wright conducted a hearing pursuant to Rocha's request for review. [AR 30-64]. Rocha appeared together with his attorney and testified along with a vocational expert during the proceeding. [AR 30-64]. The ALJ issued a written decision on April 17, 2015 finding that Rocha “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 12, 2012, through the date of this decision.” [AR 24]. On August 2, 2016, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's when the Appeals Council denied review. [AR 1-3]. Rocha filed the instant complaint in this Court on October 3, 2016. [Doc. 1].


         This Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. 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 law, 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, reweigh the evidence, try the issues de novo, or substitute its judgment for the ALJ'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

         A plaintiff is entitled to social security benefits if he is disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. “Disability” means the 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) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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 meets or equals one of the presumptively disability impairments the agency has listed; and (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv). At Step 5, the Commissioner must show that the plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform work in the national economy in light of his age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. As the term “sequential” connotes, a finding against the plaintiff at any stage of the analysis ends the analysis.

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         At step one of the evaluation, the ALJ concluded that Rocha engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 1, 2013 to September 30, 2014. [AR 17]. The ALJ explained that Rocha also was employed in the last quarter of 2012, but his earnings fell below the presumptive threshold for substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572 416.972. [AR 17]. Although the ALJ recognized that a plaintiff is “not disabled” under the Social Security Act if he can work full-time, she nonetheless concluded that there was a continuous twelve-month period where Rocha was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. [AR 17]. As a result, the remainder of the ALJ's analysis focused exclusively on that period. [AR 17].

         At step two, the ALJ found Rocha suffered from “PTSD[], generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder” which the ALJ deemed severe impairments. [AR 18]. In so doing, the ALJ rejected Rocha's remaining diagnoses as non-severe-hypertension, pulmonary emboli, deep- vein thrombosis, previous alcohol dependence and benzodiazepine abuse-because they did “not cause more than minimal limitations on his functioning.” [AR 18-19].

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Rocha's PTSD, anxiety disorder, and panic disorder-alone or in combination-neither met nor equaled one of the impairments the agency lists as precluding substantial gainful activity. [AR 19]. Rocha did have mild restriction on his activities of daily living; moderate difficulties with social functioning; and moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence or pace. [AR 19]. However, the ALJ reasoned, Rocha had no episodes of decompensation of extended duration that would satisfy listing 12.06. [AR 19]. At step four, the ALJ decided that Rocha could not undertake any of his past relevant work, but retained the residual functional capacity to “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” except he is limited “to performing simple, routine tasks, and he can have no more than occasional interactions with the public” [AR 20-23].

         At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert that with Rocha's non-exertional limitations he could secure full-time employment as an auto detailer, hand packager, dump truck driver, marker, mail clerk, and router; and these positions existed in significant numbers within the national economy. [AR 23-24]. The ALJ thus determined that Rocha was not disabled from the alleged onset to the date of her decision. [AR 24].

         C. Challenges to the ...

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