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Montano v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 14, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KIRTAN KHALSA United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 13) filed December 12, 2016, in support of Plaintiff Michael Montano's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits. On February 15, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 17.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on April 13, 2017 (Doc. 20), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on May 3, 2017. (Doc. 23.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is not well taken and is DENIED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Michael Montaño (“Mr. Montaño”) alleges that he became disabled on June 15, 2006, [2] at the age of sixteen, [3] because of chronic pain associated with an injured left knee.[4] (Tr. 204, 221.[5]) Mr. Montaño went to high school until the tenth grade, when he claims he dropped out due to his injury. (Tr. 350.) He later obtained a GED in 2005 and went on to earn his Associate's Degree in Paralegal Studies from Clovis Community College in 2011. (Tr. 42-43.) Mr. Montaño worked for brief periods of time between 2007 and 2014 as a retail store cashier and sales associate, a grocery store courtesy clerk, a church and restaurant server, and a casino valet.[6] (Tr. 207-18.)

         On January 24, 2012, Mr. Montaño protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 168-173, 204.) Mr. Montaño's application was initially denied on July 18, 2013. (Tr. 75, 104-107.) It was denied again at reconsideration on January 6, 2014. (Tr. 103, 110-114.) On March 5, 2014, Mr. Montaño requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 117-19.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on January 21, 2015. (Tr. 38-63.) Mr. Montaño appeared via video teleconference at the hearing from Clovis, New Mexico, and was represented by Michael Armstrong. (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Mr. Montaño. (Tr. 44-62.) An impartial vocational expert (VE), Kasey Suggs, appeared at the hearing, but did not testify. (Id.) On February 20, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 25-33.) On May 19, 2016, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Mr. Montaño's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-6.)

         On July 22, 2016, Mr. Montaño timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). A decision is based on substantial evidence where it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The Commissioner's decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         In considering an application for disability insurance benefits, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability at steps one through four. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the claimant successfully meets that burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(v); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ made his decision that Mr. Montaño was not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. He found that Mr. Montaño had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of medium work as defined 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c). Based on the RFC, and considering Mr. Montaño's age, education, and work experience, the ALJ concluded that Medical-Vocational Rule 203.28 directed a finding of “not disabled.”

         In support of his Motion, Mr. Montaño argues that the ALJ failed to explicitly state the weight he accorded examining State Agency medical consultant Dr. Roger Felix's opinion, and failed to give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting Dr. Felix's opinion. (Doc. 17 at 10-15.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standard in evaluating Dr. Felix's opinion and that there is no reversible error.

         Roger Felix, M.D.

         On April 27, 2013, Mr. Montaño presented to examining State Agency medical consultant Roger Felix, M.D., for a disability determination examination. (Tr. 329-31.) Mr. Montaño complained of left leg spasms, left face spasms, left arm spasms, and pain in his left lower extremity in general. (Tr. 329.) He reported to Dr. Felix that when he was sixteen years old, he was riding his bicycle when he was hit by a drunk driver. (Id.) His left knee was injured in the accident and he told Dr. Felix that the attending EMTs described his knee as being “shredded to pieces.” (Id.) Mr. Montaño also told Dr. Felix that the right side of his head hit the vehicle during the accident and that he lost consciousness for about fifteen minutes. (Id.) He reported that he did not remember most of the accident and “woke up in post anesthesia care after surgery on his knee.” (Id.) Mr. ...

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