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Christanelli v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 24, 2017

STEVEN ROY CHRISTANELLI, 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 for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, to Remand for a Rehearing [Doc. 18] (“Motion”), filed on September 20, 2016. The Commissioner responded on November 14, 2016. [Doc. 20]. Plaintiff replied on November 23, 2016. [Doc. 21]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 8]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standards in evaluating the opinions of Dr. Morgan, Dr. Blacharsh, and Dr. Cherry. 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) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). 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.

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. 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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).

         In light of this definition for disability, a five-step sequential evaluation process has been established for evaluating a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant has the burden to show that: (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 either (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. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income on June 21, 2012. Tr. 19. He alleged a disability-onset date of August 25, 2011. 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 June 11, 2014. Id. Plaintiff appeared with his attorney. Id. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Mary Diane Weber. Tr. 19, 34-67.

         The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on September 26, 2014. Tr. 28. At step one, she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since he applied for benefits. Tr. 21. 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 the following severe impairments: asthma, an antisocial personality disorder, a post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and a major depressive disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 22- 23.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 23-26. The ALJ found that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยง] 416.967(b) except he should avoid more than moderate levels of pulmonary irritants. He is able to make simple decisions with few workplace changes with no exposure to the public. He can have superficial contact with ...

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