United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge.
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to
Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the
Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum [Doc.
16] (“Motion”), filed on September 6, 2016. The
Commissioner responded on December 1, 2016. [Doc. 20].
Plaintiff replied on December 12, 2016. [Doc. 21]. The
parties have consented to the undersigned's entering
final judgment in this case. [Doc. 6]. Having meticulously
reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the
premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law
Judge's (“ALJ”) findings regarding the
Listings and the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) assessment are not susceptible to
meaningful review. The Court cannot say that the ALJ applied
the correct legal standards at step three or in formulating
the RFC assessment. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted,
and the case will be remanded for further proceedings.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence four).
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). 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). Courts
must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither
reweigh the evidence nor substitute their judgment for that
of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d
1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007).
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. The 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.” Id. While a court
may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its
examination of the record as a whole must include
“anything that may undercut or detract from the
[Commissioner]'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] 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.
failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide
this court with a sufficient basis to determine that
appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds
for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d
1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks
Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must
establish that he 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); 20 C.F.R.
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation
process, the claimant must show: (1) he is not engaged in
“substantial gainful activity”; and (2)
he 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 (3) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one
of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling
impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If
he cannot show that his impairment meets or equals a Listing,
but he proves that he is unable to perform his “past
relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the
Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able
to perform other work in the national economy, considering
his RFC, age, education, and work experience.
Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
applied for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits on May 12, 2012. Tr. 75. He alleged a
disability-onset date of March 24, 2012. Id. His
claims were denied initially and on reconsideration.
Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ.
Id. ALJ Ann Farris held a hearing on September 2,
2014, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Id., Tr. 8-46.
Plaintiff appeared with his then-attorney. Tr. 8, 75. The ALJ
heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational
expert, Nicole B. King. Tr. 75, 41-45.
issued her unfavorable decision on January 20, 2015. Tr. 82.
She found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements
through December 31, 2017. Tr. 77. At step one, she found
that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the onset date of his alleged disability.
Id. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to
step two. Id. There, she found that Plaintiff
suffered from severe degenerative disc disease of the
cervical spine with cervicalgia, plantar fasciitis,
post-traumatic arthritis of the right knee, and mild
osteoarthritis of the thumbs and the left fourth finger. Tr.
three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's
impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically
equaled a Listing. Tr. 78. Because none of Plaintiff's
impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went
on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 78-81. The ALJ found
[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(a) with the following
additional limitations: [Plaintiff] must alternate between
sitting and standing approximately hourly. He can only
occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, or reach overhead.
Additionally, [he] can frequently but not constantly finger.
Sedentary work involves lifting up to 10 pounds occasionally;
sitting for ...