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Chavez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 28, 2017

NICOLE LOUISE CHAVEZ, 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 and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 18] (“Motion”), filed on November 21, 2016. The Commissioner responded on February 10, 2017. [Doc. 22]. Plaintiff replied on March 3, 2017. [Doc. 25]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 11]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) impermissibly failed to explain why he rejected a portion of Dr. Mellon's and Dr. Castro's opinions. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted and the case 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). 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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their 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. 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.” Id. 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 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); 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) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (2) she 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) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[3] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income (“SSI”) on January 18, 2012. Tr. 27. She alleged a disability-onset date of October 1, 1996. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. Id. ALJ Barry O'Melinn held a hearing on January 6, 2015, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 27, 44-74. Plaintiff appeared in person and was represented by an attorney. Id. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert, Cornelius J. Ford. Id.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on June 24, 2015. Tr. 37. At step one he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date she applied for benefits. Id. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. There he found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “obesity; peripheral neuropathy; asthma; diabetes mellitus; headaches; hypertension; status post cellulitis; back and foot disorders; anxiety[;] and an affective disorder.” Tr. 29. At step three the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 29-30. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 30-35. The ALJ found that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 416.967(b) that requires her to lift, carry, push, and or pull 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand and or walk for a total of three hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes o[r] scaffolds; frequently balance; and occasionally stoop, crouch and crawl. [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, etc., and hazards (machinery, heights, etc.). [Plaintiff] can understand, carry out and remember simple instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions, respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers and work situations; deal with routine changes in work setting, maintain concentration, persistence and pace for up to and including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout the workday.

Tr. 30-31 (punctuation in original). At step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Tr. 36. Proceeding to step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, as well as the testimony of the VE. He found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, namely assembly worker, wire cutter, lens inserter, and circuit board screener. Tr. 36-37. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, during the relevant time period, and he denied the claims. Tr. 37.

         Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council. She submitted treatment records to the Appeals Council that had not been before the ALJ. Tr. 1-2. The new treatment records all post-dated the ALJ's decision. See Id. The Appeals Council found that the “new information [was] about a later time[, and therefore did] not affect the [ALJ's decision] about whether [Plaintiff was] disabled beginning on or before June 24, 2015.” Tr. 2. The Appeals Council ...


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