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Parada v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 30, 2017

ROBERT PHILLIP PARADA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REMAND

          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 for a closed period and that the proper legal standards were applied. For the following reasons, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On August 20, 2008, Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging that his disability began on May 13, 2006. He based his application on the following impairments: (i) bilateral degenerative disc disease, (ii) rheumatoid arthritis affecting his knees, and (iii) chronic diverticulitis. Administrative R. (“AR”) 101-04. Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on January 5, 2009 [AR 148-154], and upon reconsideration on July 31, 2009. AR 159-164. Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing and on May 21, 2010, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Barbara Licha Perkins held a hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by attorney Gary Martone.

         On April 28, 2011, ALJ Perkins issued a partially favorable decision in which she granted Plaintiff a closed period of benefits from May 13, 2006, to January 1, 2008. See AR 105-123. Plaintiff requested ALJ Perkins's decision be reviewed by the Appeals Council [AR 239-240], and, on July 22, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded his case back to an ALJ for review on the issue of whether Plaintiff's medical condition had improved such that granting him only a closed period of benefits was appropriate. AR 141-46.

         On January 16, 2014, ALJ Myriam Fernandez Rice held a second hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by attorney Feliz Martone. The ALJ also heard testimony from Judith Beard, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). AR 71-100. On March 27, 2014, ALJ Fernandez Rice issued a partially favorable decision in which she upheld ALJ Perkins's decision to grant Plaintiff a closed period of benefits. See AR 8-28. She also found that Plaintiff “once again became disabled for supplemental security income benefits only under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act beginning on his 55th birthday of December 16, 2013.” AR 28.

         Plaintiff requested the ALJ's decision be reviewed by the Appeals Council, and, on February 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied his request for review. AR 1-3. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff timely appealed the Commissioner's decision to this Court on May 2, 2016. Pl.'s Compl., ECF No. 1.

         II. 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.

         III. SUMMARY OF ARGUMENTS

         Plaintiff advances two arguments. His first argument focuses on the date the ALJ determined he was last insured - that being March 31, 2012. As a result of the ALJ's calculation, he argues there is an un-adjudicated period from March 31, 2012 to December 31, 2013. Pl.'s Mot. 8-9. Second, he argues that the ALJ committed reversible error in finding that awarding only a closed period of benefits was appropriate because his medical condition had not improved on January 1, 2008, such that he could return to work. Id. at 10-12.

         The Commissioner responds by first arguing that the ALJ did use the correct date that Plaintiff was last insured. She further states that using this date is most beneficial to Plaintiff. Def.'s Resp. 4-5, ECF No. 24. Next, she argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff's medical condition had improved as of January 1, 2008, and therefore he was able to work at that time. Id. at 5-8.

         IV. ALJ'S DECISION

         On March 27, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision affirming Plaintiff's closed period of benefits ending January 1, 2008. She did, however, determine that Plaintiff once again became disabled for supplemental security income benefits beginning on December 16, 2013. AR 28. In doing so, the ALJ conducted the eight-step sequential evaluation process, as dictated by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594, for determining whether a claimant's disability has ended. AR 13. As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2012. Moving then to the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity as of January 1, 2008, the date that his disability had ended. AR 15. Prior to step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: (i) degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, status-post right knee arthroscopy and partial meniscectomy, (ii) lateral and medial meniscal tears in the left knee, (iii) intermittent rash, (iv) osteoarthritis of the bilateral fingers, (v) diverticulosis and a history of chronic diverticulosis, (vi) hypertension, (vii) hyperlipidemia, (viii) a history of onychomycosis, status-post left great toenail removal, (ix) bilateral foraminal stenosis at ¶ 5 and slipped discs, (x) left and right subacromial bursitis, (xi) rheumatoid arthritis, and (xii) alcohol dependence. AR 15.

         At step two, the ALJ concluded that, since January 1, 2008, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[2] To reach this conclusion, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's impairments under Listings 1.02A, 1.02B, 14.09, 1.04, 5.06, and 12.09. AR 16-17. The ALJ first evaluated Plaintiff's knee condition under Listing 1.02A (major dysfunction of a joint(s) (due to any cause)) and found that there was no evidence to suggest that Plaintiff could not ambulate effectively and therefore found that Plaintiff did not meet the Listing. AR 16. The ALJ next evaluated Plaintiff's osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis in his hands under Listing 1.02B (major dysfunction of a joint(s) (due to any cause)) and Listing 14.09 (inflammatory arthritis), and found that there was no evidence that these conditions had resulted in inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively. Therefore, Plaintiff did not meet either Listing 1.02B or Listing 14.09. AR 16.

         The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff's back condition under Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine) and found that, since there was no evidence of nerve root compression or the spinal cord, Plaintiff did not meet the criteria for Listing 1.04. The ALJ next assessed to evaluate Plaintiff's diverticulitis under Listing 5.06 (inflammatory bowel disease) and found that there was “no evidence of obstruction of stenotic areas in the small intestine or colon requiring hospitalization for intestinal decompression or for surgery and occurring on at least two occasions at least 60 days apart within a consecutive six-month period.” AR 16. Finally, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's alcohol dependence under Listing 12.09 (substance abuse disorders) and found that his condition did not meet the criteria of Listing 12.09. AR 17.

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that medical improvement had occurred as of January 1, 2008. At step four, the ALJ determined that, as of January 1, 2008, Plaintiff's impairments at the time that he was initially found to be disabled, April 28, 2011, had decreased in medical severity such that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work. The ALJ determined that this medical ...


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