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Lopez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 25, 2017

WILLEY LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS 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.

         In 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).

         On 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.

         Mr. 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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. 1994).

         “Substantial 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For 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. § 416.920.

         At the 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”[1] 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.

         III. Background

         Mr. 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).

         Before 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 ...

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