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Aragon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 14, 2017

ANTHONY EUGENE ARAGON, 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. 20] (“Motion”), filed on June 28, 2017. The Commissioner responded on August 28, 2017. [Doc. 22]. Plaintiff replied on September 11, 2017. [Doc. 23]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 8]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Court finds that remand is not warranted. Plaintiff fails to show that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision is not supported by substantial evidence or is the product of an incorrect legal standard. Accordingly, the Motion will be denied, and Commissioner's final decision, affirmed.

         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 he 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).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 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) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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 (3) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[3]of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “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. If he cannot show that his impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that he is unable to perform his “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 his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on September 15, 2011. Tr. 11. He alleged a disability-onset date of January 11, 2011. Tr. 962. His claims were denied initially, on reconsideration, and by an ALJ. Tr. 11, 23. The Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-6. The Commissioner's decision was reversed and remanded by the Honorable Lourdes A. Martínez, United States Magistrate Judge, on March 4, 2016. Tr. 1084-1101; case number 14-cv-1102 LAM (D.N.M.).

         On remand, ALJ Lillian Richter held a hearing on May 24, 2016, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 962, 1024-78. Plaintiff appeared in person with his attorney and his 18-year-old daughter, Rebecca Aragon. Tr. 969, 1060. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, Ms. Aragon, and an impartial vocational expert, Mary D. Weber. Tr. 1025.

         The ALJ issued her partially favorable decision on August 2, 2016. Tr. 977. Initially, she found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2014. Tr. 964. At step one, she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Tr. 965. 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: “opiate dependence on opiate replacement therapy (methadone); heroin dependence; post traumatic stress disorder; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; obesity; hypertension; obstructive sleep apnea; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [“COPD”]; hypoxemia; sinus tachycardia; diabetes mellitus; and gastroesophageal reflux disease[.]” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 965-68.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 968-74. The ALJ assessed two different RFCs, one prior to March 23, 2013, and one beginning on March 23, 2013.[4]Id. The Court borrows Plaintiff's ...


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