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Chavez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 6, 2017

LAZARITA 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 a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 17] (“Motion”), filed on June 16, 2017. The Commissioner responded on August 29, 2017. [Doc. 21]. Plaintiff replied on September 28, 2017. [Doc. 24]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 9]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Appeals Council erred in failing to consider Dr. Morgan's reports. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings.

         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) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. 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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         In light of this definition for disability, a five-step sequential evaluation process has been established for evaluating a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant has the burden to show that: (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 either (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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner 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, a period of disability, and disability insurance benefits on July 22, 2014. Tr. 36. She alleged a disability-onset date of October 25, 2013. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Id. ALJ Ann Farris held a hearing on March 30, 2016, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 36, 54. Plaintiff appeared in person with her attorney. Tr. 36, 54. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert, Karen N. Provine. Tr. 36, 82-87.

         The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on May 9, 2016. Tr. 48. Initially, she found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016. Tr. 39. At step one, she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Id. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. There, she found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depressive disorder, and polysubstance abuse. Tr. 39-40. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments met Listing 12.06. Tr. 40-41. However, the ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped using substances, her impairments, alone or in combination, would not meet or medically equal a Listing. Tr. 42-43.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing (assuming cessation of substance use), the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 43-46. The ALJ found that:

If [Plaintiff] stopped the substance use, [she] would have the [RFC] to perform light work (lift 20 pounds occasionally, stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยงยง] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she should avoid all exposure to hazards and can kneel, crouch and crawl only occasionally. She can ...

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