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Halford v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 15, 2017

TALIA HALFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Talia Halford's Motion to Reverse And Remand For Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 16), filed June 9, 2017; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 20), filed August 22, 2017; and Ms. Halford's Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc. 22), filed September 1, 2017.

         Ms. Halford filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on May 12, 2011, alleging disability beginning November 2, 1999. (Administrative Record “AR” 1216). Ms. Halford claimed she was limited in her ability to work due to: injuries from an automobile accident, disc problems, PTSD, brain injury, fibromyalgia, loss of full use of limbs, insomnia, and hypothyroid disorder. (AR 203). Ms. Halford's applications were denied initially on October 28, 2011, and upon reconsideration on February 9, 2012. (AR 10). Ms. Halford requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on October 2, 2012, before ALJ Michelle K. Lindsay. (AR 23).

         On February 25, 2013, ALJ Lindsay issued her decision, finding Ms. Halford not disabled at any time between her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 10-21). Ms. Halford requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 6), which was denied. (AR 1-3). Ms. Halford then appealed the Commissioner's decision to the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. Halford v. Social Security Administration, No. CV 13-805, KG/CG. On January 12, 2015, the Court entered a Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition (“PFRD”) finding ALJ Lindsay failed to properly evaluate the opinion of Christopher Merchant, M.D., and recommending that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Halford, No. CV 13-805 KG/CG, (Doc. 25 at 16-17). On March 3, 2015, the presiding judge adopted the PFRD and remanded the case to the Commissioner. Id., (Doc. 26).

         On remand, the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the Commissioner's prior decision and assigned this case to ALJ Lillian Richter for further proceedings consistent with the Court's order. (AR 1414). ALJ Richter held a hearing on October 21, 2015, at which Ms. Halford and VE Mary Diane Weber appeared and testified, and Ms. Halford was represented by attorney Michael Armstrong. (AR 1297-1336). On January 8, 2016, ALJ Richter issued a decision finding Ms. Halford not disabled at any time between her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 1260-88). However, after learning that Ms. Halford's attorney had submitted additional records, ALJ Richter reopened her decision and provided Ms. Halford an opportunity for a supplemental hearing. (AR 1543-44). Ms. Halford requested a supplemental hearing to address the issues raised by the supplemental evidence, (AR 1545), and, on April 14, 2016, ALJ Richter held a supplemental hearing, at which Ms. Halford, VE Thomas Greiner, and Gerald Fredman, M.D., appeared and testified, and Ms. Halford was again represented by Mr. Armstrong. (AR 1337-86).

         On August 9, 2016, ALJ Richter issued a decision vacating her January 5, 2016 decision and finding Ms. Halford not disabled at any time between her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 1216-48). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984, 416.1484, this decision by ALJ Richter is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal.[1]

         Ms. Halford now argues that ALJ Richter erred by failing to: (1) properly consider the opinions of Dr. Fredman; (2) properly consider the opinions of State Agency examining consultants Alvin Smith, Ph.D., and Michael Emery, Ph.D.; (3) conduct a function-by-function assessment; (4) obtain a medical expert opinion; and (5) properly evaluate Ms. Halford's credibility. (Doc. 16 at 16-25). Ms. Halford asks the Court to remand this case for rehearing or, in the alternative, reverse for an immediate award of benefits. Id. at 25-26. The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because ALJ Richter erred in her consideration of the opinions of Dr. Fredman, Dr. Smith, and Dr. Emery, the Court finds that Ms. Halford's motion should be GRANTED IN PART.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision 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). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or show . . . that she has done so, are grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “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. An ALJ's 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 the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ'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 ALJ]'s 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when 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) (2015), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012).

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (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”[2] 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); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the Commissioner must show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Ms. Halford claimed she was limited in her ability to work due to: injuries from an automobile accident, disc problems, PTSD, brain injury, fibromyalgia, loss of full use of limbs, insomnia, and hypothyroid disorder. (AR 203). At step one, ALJ Richter determined Ms. Halford had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 2, 1999, the alleged onset date. (AR 1219).

         At step two, ALJ Richter found that Ms. Halford has the following severe impairments: “temporomandibular joint disorder; pain disorder; bilateral sciatica secondary to lumbar 4-5; lumbar 5-sacrum 1 disease; cervicalgia; fibromyalgia; depression; chronic migraine headaches; mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine; redemonstrated pars interarticularis defects at LR, without spondylolisthesis; mild spinal canal stenosis from C4-5 through C6-7; severe L neural forminal narrowing at ¶ 6-7; moderate bilateral neural foraminal narrowing at ¶ 5-6; small L paracentral disc protrusion T6-7; post-traumatic stress disorder; and mild neurocognitive disorder due to traumatic brain injury with behavioral disturbance.” (AR 1220). At step three, ALJ Richter determined that none of Ms. Halford's impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. (AR 1221-23).

         At step four, ALJ Richter found that Ms. Halford has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), with the following exceptions: she can lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; her ability to push and pull is limited by her ability to lift and/or carry; she can stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks; she can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks; she can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl; she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she is limited to performing simple, routine tasks; she can understand, ...


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