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Shaw v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 15, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Stanley Donald Shaw's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, filed September 6, 2016, and fully briefed on November 23, 2016. Docs. 18, 20, 22, 23. The parties have consented to my entering a final judgment in this case. Docs. 5, 7, 8. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to apply the correct legal standards when assessing the agency consultants' medical opinions. I therefore GRANT Mr. Shaw's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. 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). "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 and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its 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. A 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 the Court may not reweigh 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 ALJ'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) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she 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. § 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 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 must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in "substantial gainful activity;" (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[3] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her "past relevant work, " the burden then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Mr. Shaw is a 52-year-old man with a ninth-grade education and a history of working in construction. AR[4] 128, 221, 247, 275. Mr. Shaw lives with his ex-wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico. AR 129, 140-41, 245. Mr. Shaw initially applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits on March 2, 2012, alleging disability since July 1, 2005.[5] AR 221-26. Mr. Shaw alleged he was disabled due to injuries to his neck, back, pelvis, elbow, and ribs, numbness and loss of feeling in his arms, hands, feet, and legs, blindness in his left eye, memory lapses, problems with balance, and weight restrictions. AR 246.

         Mr. Shaw's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 152-67, 168-85, 193-96. On May 30, 2014, ALJ Michelle Lindsay conducted a hearing. AR 122-51. ALJ Lindsay issued her unfavorable decision on September 25, 2014. AR 103-21. At step one, ALJ Lindsay found that Mr. Shaw had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since his application date of January 13, 2012. AR 108. Because Mr. Shaw had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, ALJ Lindsay proceeded to step two. At step two, ALJ Lindsay found that Mr. Shaw suffered from the severe impairments of a "history of fractured elbow, fractured pelvis; disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, status post cervical fusion; compression fractures at T11 and L3; mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the hips; and dysthymic disorder[6] due to general medical conditions." Id. At step three, ALJ Lindsay found that none of Mr. Shaw's impairments-alone or in combination- met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 108-10.

         Because none of the impairments met a Listing, ALJ Lindsay assess Mr. Shaw's RFC and found that:

[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that the claimant can only occasionally climb stairs and ramps, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; is limited to frequent fingering and feeling; must avoid frequent exposure to extreme cold and humidity; must avoid frequent exposure to vibration; and must avoid unprotected heights. Further, he is able to understand, remember, and carry[ ]out only simple instructions, and is able to maintain attention and concentration to perform only simple tasks for two hours at a time without requiring redirection to task.

AR 110. At step four, ALJ Lindsay determined that Mr. Shaw was unable to perform any past relevant work. AR 114. At step five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, ALJ Lindsay found that Mr. Shaw could perform the jobs of cashier, fast food worker, and mail clerk. AR 115. Accordingly, ALJ Lindsay found that Mr. Shaw "is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists ...

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