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Whitney v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 12, 2017

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Michael Whitney's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. Doc. 19. The Court concludes that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of Dr. Robert Knight, M.D. Therefore, the Court will grant Plaintiff's motion and remand this action to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for period of disability, disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on February 29, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) 14; see also AR 64, 73. He alleged a disability onset date of September 1, 2011. Id. After his claim was denied on initial review and upon reconsideration, his case was set for a hearing in front of an ALJ on August 27, 2014. Id.

         On October 21, 2014, the ALJ issued a partially favorable written decision finding that Plaintiff was “not disabled prior to November 4, 2013, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision.” AR 14. In arriving at her decision, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2011, his alleged onset date. AR 16-17. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) mild impingement of the hips; (2) a major depressive disorder; (3) a general anxiety disorder; and (4) minimal degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. AR 17. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's remaining impairments were non-severe. AR 17. With regard to the severe impairments, the ALJ, however, found that these impairments, individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 17-19.

         Because she found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet a Listing, the ALJ then went on to assess Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). AR 19. The ALJ stated that

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that since September 1, 2011, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that he has to alternate between sitting and standing approximately every thirty minutes, and cannot kneel, crouch, or crawl. In addition, the claimant can make simple work-related decisions, with few workplace changes, and can have only occasional, superficial contact with the general public.

         AR 19. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. AR 24. The ALJ then indicated that Plaintiff's age category changed on November 4, 2013 to an individual of advanced age. AR 25. The ALJ found that beginning on November 4, 2013, Plaintiff has “not been able to transfer job skills to other occupations.” Id. Prior to November 4, 2013, however, the ALJ found that “transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that [Plaintiff] is ‘not disabled' whether or not [Plaintiff] has transferable job skills.” Id. Based on the RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ then determined at step five that prior to November 4, 2013 (the date Plaintiff's age category changed), considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and his RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. AR 25-26. Finally, the ALJ determined that beginning on November 4, 2013, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. AR 26-27.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's partially favorable decision to the Social Security Appeals Council and the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 10. This appeal followed. Doc. 19.


         A. Disability Determination Process

         A claimant is considered disabled for purposes of Social Security disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income 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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(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, 416.920. 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 is presumed disabled and the analysis stops.
(4) If, however, Claimant's impairment(s) are not equivalent to a listed impairment, Claimant must establish that the impairment(s) prevent her from doing her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [Claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. § 404.1545(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of Claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given Claimant's RFC, Claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(5) At this point, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that Claimant is able to “make an adjustment to other work.” If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, Claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005).

         B. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). In making these determinations, the reviewing court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). For example, a court's disagreement with a decision is immaterial to the substantial evidence analysis. A decision is supported by substantial evidence as long as it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800. While this requires more than a mere scintilla of evidence, Casias, 933 F.3d at 800, “[t]he possibility of ...

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