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Thompson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 17, 2017

LISA THOMPSON, 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 July 6, 2017. The Commissioner responded on September 5, 2017. [Doc. 22]. Plaintiff replied on September 19, 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 that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to provide a legally adequate evaluation of Plaintiff's alleged symptoms. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted and the case remanded for further proceedings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence four).

         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 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).

         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) 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 (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. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “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 her 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 February 2, 2012. Tr. 10. She alleged a disability-onset date of September 19, 2008. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. Id. ALJ David R. Gutierrez held a hearing on June 25, 2015, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tr. 10, 25-49. Plaintiff appeared in person and was represented by an attorney. Tr. 10, 25-49. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert, Mary Diane Weber. Tr. 10, 25.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on August 7, 2015. Tr. 19. Initially, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2011. Tr. 12. At step one he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of her alleged disability. Id. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. There he found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and post-laminectomy syndrome. Id. At step three the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 13.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 13-16. The ALJ found that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยงยง] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can sit up to 6 hours; stand/walk up to 6 hours; cannot push or pull; due to lower back problems, can occasionally climb ropes, ladders[, ] or scaffolding; can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally, due to back and neck problems; can constantly handle, reach, finger, and feel bilaterally; would need to avoid extreme cold and heat; avoid concentrated ...

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