Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Leedy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 4, 2017

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for a Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”), filed on November 7, 2016. ECF No. 22. The Commissioner responded on February 7, 2017. ECF No. 26. Plaintiff replied on March 6, 2017. ECF No. 27. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the parties' pleadings, the Court finds that Plaintiff's Motion is not well taken and that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) ruling should be AFFIRMED. Therefore, and for the further reasons articulated below, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on October 16, 1974, in Pennsylvania. Administrative R. (“AR”) 125, 397. Plaintiff graduated from high school in 1993 and worked thereafter as a cashier in various capacities and as a home health care provider. AR 291. She quit working sometime in 2011. AR 291.

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on December 13, 2012. AR 265-276. Plaintiff claimed disability beginning on July 31, 2011, based on a mental problem, an emotional problem, depression, anxiety attacks, a neck injury, migraines, chronic neck and shoulder pain, and deformity of the spine.[1] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on March 13, 2013, and upon reconsideration on May 30, 2013. AR 138, 152, 168, 183. At her request, Plaintiff received a de novo hearing before ALJ Gerardo Perez on October 2, 2014, at which Plaintiff, her attorney, and vocational expert (“VE”) Thomas Munget appeared. AR 66-95. On August 5, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). AR 60. Plaintiff appealed to the SSA Appeals Council, but it declined review on February 17, 2016. AR 1-4. As a consequence, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a) (2016). Plaintiff timely filed her appeal with this Court on March 24, 2016. ECF No. 1.


         Plaintiff advances two grounds for relief. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider and incorporate the limitations caused by her migraines into her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Pl.'s Mot. 8-11, ECF No. 22. Additionally, she contends the ALJ committed legal error by improperly evaluating the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. John Koewler, Ph.D. Id. at 11-14.


         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.[2] 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)). 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 [he] 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) (2016). 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 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 her 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 not prevented from performing his past work, then she 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, and then the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five. 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).


         The ALJ issued his decision on December 19, 2014. AR 47. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of July 31, 2011. AR 52. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease, affective disorder, personality disorder, and anxiety to be severe impairments. AR 52. In contrast, the ALJ found Plaintiff's migraines to be non-severe. AR 53.

         At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 53-54. The ALJ began his discussion with Plaintiff's mental impairments, which he considered under Listing 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and 12.08 (personality disorders). AR 53. The ALJ determined the paragraph B criteria of these Listings[3] were not met “[b]ecause the claimant's mental impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘marked' limitation and ‘repeated' episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.” AR 54. He then explained his reasoning regarding paragraph B's four subparts.

         First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's activities of daily living and found her to have only a mild restriction. The ALJ recalled Plaintiff's testimony that “during the day, she is able to care for her personal grooming; cook simple meals, wash dishes[, ] do laundry[, ] fold and put away clothes; and sweep, mop, dust[, ] and vacuum for short periods.” AR 53. Moreover, he observed that Plaintiff “is able to drive and grocery shop.” AR 53.

         Second, the ALJ catalogued the dichotomy in Plaintiff's social functioning, noting on the one hand that she “isolates herself from the world and avoids talking to people, ” “prefers to sleep, ” and “does not attend church, ” while on the other, “she has friends and associates” and “gets along with her mother and children.” AR 53. The ALJ accounted for these seeming contradictions by finding the claimant has moderate difficulties with social functioning. AR 53.

         Third, as to Plaintiff's concentration, persistence, and pace, the ALJ found Plaintiff had moderate difficulties. To buttress the finding, the ALJ turned to Plaintiff's testimony that she has “memory problems and forgets things, ” “has problems recalling people's names, ” “forgets the movies she has watched, ” and “has also forgotten that she was cooking after she began another project.” AR 54.

         Lastly, regarding episodes of decompensation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has experienced no episodes of decompensation, which have been of extended duration.” AR 54. This corresponded with his finding that the paragraph C criteria of the relevant listings were not met. AR 54.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments satisfied an applicable Listing, the ALJ moved on to step four and assessed Plaintiff's RFC. AR 54-58. “After careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff:

[H]as the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยงยง] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except no climbing of ladders[, ] ropes[, ] or scaffolds; [may] occasional[ly] climb[ ] ramps and stairs; occasional[ly] balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; no overhead reaching above shoulder level bilaterally; limited to understanding, remembering[, ] ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.