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Brookbank v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 21, 2017

DIANA L. BROOKBANK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THE HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Diana L. Brookbank's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 16), filed August 21, 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. 18), filed October 19, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supportive Memorandum, (Doc. 19), filed November 2, 2017.

         On March 25, 2013, Ms. Brookbank applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income claiming disability beginning August 8, 2008. (Administrative Record “AR” 208-18). In both applications, Ms. Brookbank claimed post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder limited her ability to work. (AR 76, 89). Ms. Brookbank's applications were denied initially on August 27, 2013, (AR 76-101), and on reconsideration on October 17, 2013, (AR 104-31). Ms. Brookbank requested a hearing before an Administrate Law Judge (“ALJ”), (AR 149-51), which was granted, and a hearing was held on September 25, 2015 before ALJ Lillian Richter, (AR 37-75). Ms. Brookbank represented herself and testified at the hearing, and Leslie J. White, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), also testified. (AR 33-34).

         On November 9, 2015, ALJ Richter issued her decision finding Ms. Brookbank not disabled at any time from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 32). Ms. Brookbank requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 16), which was denied, (AR 5-8), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Ms. Brookbank has appealed the ALJ's decision, arguing the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to resolve a conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). (Doc. 16 at 1). 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 did not err in failing to resolve any conflict, the Court finds Ms. Brookbank's application should be DENIED.

         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); 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 ALJ's failure to apply the correct legal standards or demonstrate that he has done so is 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, 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. § 416.905(a). 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. § 416.920.

         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. § 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 RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Ms. Brookbank applied for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits claiming post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder limited her ability her work. (AR 76, 89). At step one, the ALJ found Ms. Brookbank had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (AR 23). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Brookbank has three severe impairments: an anxiety related disorder, an affective disorder, and a substance dependence disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found Ms. Brookbank's impairments do not, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of a Listed impairment. (AR 25).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Brookbank has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations: she is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; she is unable to work in close proximity with others without becoming distracted from work tasks; she cannot work at production pace but can meet end-of-day goals; she can interact frequently with supervisors and the public, but can only interact occasionally with coworkers; and she can tolerate few changes in the ...


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