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Friedland v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 3, 2017

DAVID EDWARD FRIEDLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          GREGORY J. FOURATT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”), filed on October 21, 2016. ECF No. 19. The Commissioner responded on January 20, 2017. ECF No. 23. Plaintiff replied on February 6, 2017. ECF No. 24. Having meticulously reviewed the briefing and the entire record, the Court concludes that the Commissioner followed the correct legal standards and supported her decision with substantial evidence. Therefore, and for the further reasons articulated below, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On May 9, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning April 20, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 186. On September 26, 2012, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income (“SSI”), also alleging disability beginning April 20, 2011. AR 193. Plaintiff alleged disability due to chronic pain in his lower back, sciatica, tendonitis, a heart attack in December 2010, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and headaches. AR 226. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on October 4, 2012. AR 128. On reconsideration, Plaintiff's applications were again denied on June 21, 2013. AR 136. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on June 12, 2014, before ALJ John Rolph, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. AR 9-19; 25. Plaintiff testified at the hearing, along with Leslie White, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). AR 25. Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by Kimberly Wyatt, an attorney. AR 25.

         On September 17, 2014, ALJ Rolph issued his decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act and therefore not entitled to either SSI or DIB. AR 19. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on January 13, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1. Plaintiff subsequently appealed on March 15, 2016. ECF No. 1.

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         A. Standard of Review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[1] The Court's review of that final agency decision is both factual and legal. See Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)) (“The standard of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.”).

         The factual findings at the administrative level are conclusive “if supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 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). 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. Substantial evidence does not, however, require a preponderance of the evidence. See 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)).

         “The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). “Rather, in addition to discussing the evidence supporting his decision, the ALJ also must discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Id. at 1010. “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.

         As for the review of the ALJ's legal decisions, the Court examines “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed “to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).

         Ultimately, if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214, Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4) (2017). At the first three steps, the ALJ considers the claimant's current work activity, the medical severity of the claimant's impairments, and the requirements of the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), & Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If a claimant's impairments are not equal to one of those in the Listing of Impairments, then the ALJ proceeds to the first of three phases of step four and determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). In phase two, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work, and in the third phase, compares the claimant's RFC with the functional requirements of his past relevant work to determine if the claimant is still capable of performing his past work. See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If a claimant is able to perform his past work, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the question of disability for the first four steps. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Talbot v. Heckler, 814 F.2d 1456, 1460 (10th Cir. 1987).

         If the claimant cannot return to his past work, then the Commissioner bears the burden at the fifth step of showing that the claimant is nonetheless capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25; see also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988) (discussing the five-step sequential evaluation process in detail).

         III. SUMMARY OF ARGUMENTS

         Plaintiff advances two arguments in support of reversing and remanding the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Steven Hartman, M.D. Pl's. Mot. 15-19. Second, Plaintiff claims the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to resolve a conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). Pl.'s Mot. 19-23. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Hartman's was legally correct and supported by substantial evidence. Def.'s Resp. 4-9. Further, the ...


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