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Bennett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 25, 2017

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Nancy Bennett's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff disability insurance benefits. Doc. 17. Plaintiff alleges that various mental health disorders and a bad back prevent her from being able to work. After examining Plaintiff, Lloyd Huang, M.D., determined that Plaintiff's back condition allowed her to “stand and walk for 4 to 5 hours of an 8-hour day with breaks . . . .” AR 331-32. The ALJ gave Dr. Huang's opinion great weight but then inexplicably determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks.” AR 24-26. Because the ALJ did not explain how she determined that Plaintiff could stand and/or walk longer than Dr. Huang determined she could, this case must be remanded so that the ALJ can provide such an explanation. Thus, the Court will grant Plaintiff's motion and remand this action to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         For years, Plaintiff has complained of chronic back pain. In connection with a prior filing, Dr. Huang performed a consultative examination on Plaintiff in 2008. AR 25. He “did not find any radicular findings and noted that [Plaintiff] had good range of motion.” AR 25. Further, as Defendant acknowledges, Dr. Huang found that Plaintiff could “stand and walk for four to five hours in an eight hour day.” Doc. 21 at 4-5; see also AR 331. The ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Huang's testimony. AR 26.

         Plaintiff thereafter saw other doctors and received several multiple magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) exams. The first, taken on August 15, 2012, showed “degenerative changes at multiple levels without canal stenosis or foraminal stenosis.” AR 27, 474-75. This was followed by “a rather unremarkable examination and review of imaging” by Christopher Calder, M.D. on May 9, 2013. AR 27. As stated by the ALJ, this examination revealed “evidence of prior fusion and diffuse degenerative changes, but no abnormalities to explain [Plaintiff's] pain.” AR 27. Further, the ALJ noted that Dr. Calder found “no neurological explanation for Plaintiff's pain.” AR 27.

         Plaintiff's second MRI was taken on October 12, 2013 and, in the words of the ALJ, “resulted in findings of only mild multilevel degenerative disc disease without spinal can [sic] stenosis or neural foraminal narrowing throughout the lumbar spine.” AR 27. Further, she noted, a third MRI taken in 2014 showed “prior cervical discectomy and fusion at ¶ 5-C6 level and mild left neural foraminal narrowing noted at ¶ 4-C5 level, but otherwise, the study was normal.” AR 27. However, except for Dr. Huang's assessment, neither the parties' briefs nor the ALJ's decision cite to any medical opinion that explicitly addresses Plaintiff's ability to stand and/or walk. The ALJ specifically noted there were “no other medical opinions” in the record to contradict Dr. Huang's opinion. AR 25.

         The ALJ found Plaintiff to have the following severe impairments: depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, status post cervical fusion, obesity, and lumbago. AR 22. Regarding Plaintiff's physical impairments, in assessing Plaintiff's RFC the ALJ stated in relevant part:

[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. The claimant can stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks.

AR 24. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work but that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. AR

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         A. Disability Determination Process

         A claimant is considered disabled for purposes of Social Security disability insurance benefits if that individual 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). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies these statutory criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The steps of the analysis are as follows:

(1) Claimant must establish that she is not currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If claimant is so engaged, she is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(2) Claimant must establish that she has “a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . or combination of impairments” that has lasted for at least one year. If claimant is not so impaired, she is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(3) If claimant can establish that her impairment(s) are equivalent to a listed impairment that has already been determined to preclude substantial gainful activity, claimant ...

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