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Najera v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 9, 2017

LORETTA NAJERA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REMAND

          THE HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”) [ECF No. 18]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record, considered the parties' arguments, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits and that the proper legal standards were applied. For the following reasons, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On August 10, 2012, Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging that her disability began on April 5, 2012. Administrative R. (“AR”) 197-209. She based her application for disability benefits on the following impairments: (i) congestive heart failure, (ii) post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), (iii) bipolar disorder, and (iv) depression. AR 231. Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on January 23, 2013 [AR 125-131], and upon reconsideration on April 29, 2013 [AR 132-136]. Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing and on May 28, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Donna Montano held a hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by attorney Feliz Martone. Additionally, the ALJ heard testimony from Mary Diane Weber, an impartial vocational expert, and Susan Bolton, Plaintiff's case manager. AR 31-74.

         On September 23, 2014, ALJ Montano issued her decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act and therefore ineligible for disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income. AR 25. Plaintiff filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on April 12, 2016. AR 1-11. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff timely filed this appeal on May 19, 2016. See Pl.'s Compl., ECF No. 1.

         Plaintiff filed subsequent applications for SSDI and SSI benefits on May 12, 2016. Pl.'s Mot. 3. On October 6, 2016, Plaintiff's application for SSI benefits was approved. Id. at 4.

         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 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 not prevented from performing 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, 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).

         III. ...


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