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Gonzales v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 21, 2017

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Bernardo Leon Gonzales' Motion to Reverse And Remand For Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 20), filed June 29, 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. 22), filed August 28, 2017; and Mr. Gonzales' Reply in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc. 25), filed September 21, 2017.

         Mr. Gonzales filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on February 5, 2013, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. (Administrative Record “AR” 41). Mr. Gonzales claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to “back problems, anger issues.” (AR 289). Mr. Gonzales' applications were denied initially on July 19, 2013, and upon reconsideration on January 7, 2014. (AR 41). Mr. Gonzales requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on May 28, 2015, before ALJ Eric Weiss. (AR 61). Mr. Gonzales and Karen Provine, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and Mr. Gonzales was represented by attorney Edward Goodman. (AR 61-111).

         On June 19, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Mr. Gonzales not disabled at any time between his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 54-55). Mr. Gonzales requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 36), which was denied, (AR 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Mr. Gonzales, who is now represented by William Rode, argues in his Motion that: (1) the Appeals Council failed to properly consider the opinions of Mark Evanko, D.O; (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of State Agency consultants John Owen, Ph.D., Jill Blacharsh, M.D., and Charles F. Bridges, Ph.D.; and (3) the ALJ's step five determination is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 20 at 13-22). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because the ALJ erred in his consideration of the opinions of Dr. Owen, Dr. Blacharsh, and Dr. Bridges, the Court finds that Mr. Gonzales' Motion should be GRANTED.

         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”[1] 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

         Mr. Gonzales claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to back problems and anger issues. (AR 289). At step one, the ALJ determined Mr. Gonzales had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 1999, the alleged onset date. (AR 43). At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Gonzales has the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; right knee early mild arthritis and grade 2 right posterior cruciate ligament tear (non-operable); lumbar spine minimal grade L5 to S1 spondylolisthesis and pseudarthrosis of the right L5 transverse process with the sacrum; post-traumatic stress disorder; depressive disorder; dyslexia; personality disorder, not otherwise specified; and substance abuse in remission. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Mr. Gonzales' 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 44-47).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Mr. Gonzales has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), with the following exceptions: he may occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; he may occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; he may frequently handle and finger with his bilateral upper extremities; he must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, excessive vibration, unprotected heights, and moving machinery; he is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions; he is able to maintain concentration, persistence, ...

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