United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Willey Lopez's
Motion To Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with
Supporting Memorandum, (Doc. 20), filed April 7, 2017;
Defendant's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's
Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative
Decision, (Doc. 23), (filed June 9, 2017); and
Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and
Remand for Rehearing, (Doc. 28), filed June 23, 2017.
August, 2012, Mr. Lopez filed for supplemental security
income (SSI) claiming back problems, paranoia, anxiety, and
learning problems prevented him from working. (Administrative
Record “AR” 69-70). Mr. Lopez's claim was
denied initially on March 6, 2013, (AR 81), and upon
reconsideration on May 3, 2013, (AR 96). Mr. Lopez requested
a hearing before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”), (AR 110-12), which was held on December
18, 2014, before ALJ Barry O'Melinn, (AR 40-68). Mr.
Lopez and Cornelius J. Ford, an impartial vocational expert
(“VE”), testified at the hearing. (AR 40).
Michael Armstrong, Mr. Lopez's attorney, represented Mr.
Lopez at the hearing. (AR 40, 108).
April 2, 2015, ALJ O'Melinn issued his decision finding
that Mr. Lopez was not disabled and therefore not entitled to
SSI. (AR 16-34). Mr. Lopez requested review by the Appeals
Council, which denied Mr. Lopez's request, making the
ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for
purposes of this appeal.
Lopez has appealed the ALJ's decision, arguing the ALJ
committed two harmful errors in his analysis: first, by
improperly rejecting the opinion of Carletta Thompson, MD,
and second, by improperly evaluating Mr. Lopez's
character for truthfulness rather than Mr. Lopez's
symptoms. (Doc. 20 at 1). The Court has reviewed the Motion,
the Response, the Reply, and relevant law. Additionally, the
Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record.
Because the ALJ erred in his consideration of Dr.
Thompson's opinion, the Court finds Mr. Lopez's
Motion should be GRANTED.
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); Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365
F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart,
331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The ALJ's failure to
apply the correct legal standards or demonstrate that he has
done so is grounds for reversal. Winfrey v. Chater,
92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v.
Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court
should meticulously review the entire record but should
neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for
the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is
limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision,
rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review.
O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (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; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's
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.
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try
the issues de novo, its examination of the record
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
ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial
evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084
(10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372
F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of supplemental security income, a claimant
establishes a disability when 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) (2015), 42
U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. §
416.905(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is
disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential
evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §
first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of
showing: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful
activity”; (2) she 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 either (3) her impairment(s) either
meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399
F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the
claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will
proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five
the Commissioner must show the claimant is able to perform
other work in the national economy, considering the
claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.
Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
Lopez applied for SSI claiming back problems, paranoia,
anxiety, and learning problems limited his ability to work.
(AR 70). At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Lopez had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity. (AR 21). At step
two, the ALJ determined Mr. Lopez had the following severe
impairments: status post-lumbar fusion, glaucoma, headaches,
anxiety, and borderline intellectual functioning disorder.
(AR 21). At step three, the ALJ concluded Mr. Lopez's
impairments did not, alone or in combination, meet or
medically equal a listed impairment. (AR 22-24).
proceeding to step four, the ALJ found Mr. Lopez has the RFC
to: lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and lift and/or carry
up to 10 pounds frequently; sit and stand and/or walk up to
six hours in an eight hour workday with normal breaks;
occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, or crawl; and never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. (AR 24). Further, according to the ALJ, Mr. Lopez
is limited to occupations requiring only occasional far
visual acuity, but he can understand, carry out, and remember
simple instructions and make commensurate work-related
decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers,
and usual work situations; deal with routine changes in the
work setting; and maintain concentration, persistence or pace
for up ...