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Holler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 26, 2017

BILLY HOLLER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand the Social Security Agency (“SSA”) decision to deny Plaintiff Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (“SSDI”). Doc. 17. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED, and this action is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an initial application for SSDI on September 9, 2013. AR at 165-68. Plaintiff alleged that he had a disability resulting from a fracture of his left tibia, injured shoulder, foot pain and insomnia. AR at 192. His application was denied on initial review on October 21, 2013 and again on reconsideration on January 14, 2014. AR at 103-07, 109- 14. On February 12, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing on the determination by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the hearing before the ALJ took place on May 29, 2015. AR at 125-26, 61-101. On July 10, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff could return to his past relevant work as a route salesman/sales route driver and was therefore not disabled. AR at 43-49. Notwithstanding that finding, the ALJ proceeded to step five of the five-step disability evaluation and found in the alternative that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of kitchen helper, hospital cleaner, or industrial sweeper/cleaner. AR at 49-50. The ALJ therefore found that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR at 50.

         Plaintiff appealed the denial of his application to the Appeals Council, which denied review on December 23, 2016. AR at 1-3. Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on February 17, 2017, seeking review of the ALJ's decision. Doc. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a court may review a final decision of the Commissioner only to determine whether it (1) is supported by “substantial evidence” and (2) comports with the proper legal standards. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). “In reviewing the ALJ's decision, we neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency.” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800. “The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). “[I]n addition to discussing the evidence supporting his decision, the ALJ must also 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 [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).

         III. Parties' Positions

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by conducting a flawed analysis and determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and that the Appeals Council erred by failing to properly consider new qualifying evidence. Doc. 17 at 6-9. Defendant argues that the ALJ properly analyzed and determined Plaintiff's RFC and that the Appeals Council did not err, because the additional evidence considered by the Appeals Council does not cast doubt on the ALJ's decision. Doc. 19 at 7-11. Ultimately, the Court concludes that the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's RFC comported with the applicable legal standards and was supported by substantial evidence, and that the additional evidence that Plaintiff submitted to the Appeals Council would not have changed the disability determination.

         IV. ALJ Evaluation

         A. Legal Standard

         For purposes of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, an individual is disabled when 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). To determine whether a person satisfies these criteria, the SSA has developed a five-step test. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the Commissioner finds an individual disabled at any step, the next step is not taken. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At the first four steps of the analysis, the claimant has the burden to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (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 that either (3) his impairments meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         Step four of this analysis consists of three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC in light of “all of the relevant medical and other evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). A claimant's RFC is “the most [he] can still do despite [physical and mental] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past work. “To make the necessary findings, the ALJ must obtain adequate ‘factual information about those work demands which have a bearing on the medically established limitations.'” Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1024 (quoting Social Security Ruling (SSR) 82- 62 (1982)). Third, the ALJ determines whether, in light of the RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. Id. at 1023, 1025.

         If the ALJ concludes that the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ then proceeds to step five of the evaluation process. At step five, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         B. The ...

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