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Eckert v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 10, 2017

MARTIN JOSEPH ECKERT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS 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

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[2] 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).

         “Substantial 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. 2004)).

         “The 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 omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In 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. § 404.1505(a).

         When 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”[3] 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.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff 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.

         The ALJ 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. 77-78.

         At step 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 that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยง] 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 ...

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