United States District Court, D. New Mexico
HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion
to Reverse or Remand the Administrative Decision” [ECF
No. 19] and “Memorandum Brief in Support of
Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand the
Administrative Agency Decision” [ECF No. 18]
(collectively, “Motion”),  filed on February
9, 2017. The Commissioner responded on April 28, 2017. ECF
No. 21. Plaintiff replied on May 8, 2017. ECF No. 22. Having
meticulously reviewed the briefing and the entire record, the
Court concludes that Plaintiff's Motion is well taken and
that the Administrative Law Judge's
(“ALJ's”) ruling should be
REVERSED and REMANDED.
Therefore, and for the further reasons articulated below, the
Court will GRANT Plaintiff's Motion.
was born on January 31, 1962. Administrative R.
(“AR”) 32. He graduated from high school and
attended one year of college. AR 46. Plaintiff then was a
journeyman electrician for almost thirty-five (35) years. AR
filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance
(“SSDI”) on February 21, 2015 [AR 22], alleging
disability beginning on February 20, 2015 [AR 46-47], due to
stage three prostate cancer (adenocarcinoma), arthritis of
both knees, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and obesity
[AR 75]. The Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's claim on June 15,
2015, and again upon reconsideration on August 19, 2015. AR
22. Plaintiff then requested a de novo hearing,
which occurred on January 19, 2016, in Albuquerque, New
Mexico, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
Lillian Richter. AR 22, 34. Plaintiff and Pamela Bowman, a
vocational expert (“VE”), testified during the
hearing. AR 22.
February 16, 2016, the ALJ issued her decision that Plaintiff
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act (“the Act”), from February 20, 2015, through
the date of her decision. AR 33-34. On March 8, 2016,
Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the
ALJ's decision, which was denied on May 5, 2016. AR 1-4.
As a consequence, the ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a)
timely filed his appeal in this Court on May 23, 2016. ECF
appeal, Plaintiff raises three issues. First, Plaintiff
contends that the ALJ failed to comply with 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527 by failing to accord controlling weight to the
opinion of the claimant's treating physicians. Pl.'s
Mot. 9, ECF No. 18. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ
erred at step five by propounding and relying upon the
response to a hypothetical question that did not include all
of Plaintiff's severe limitations. Id. Last,
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in failing to find
Claimant disabled as a matter of law because even if he was
able to perform a full range of sedentary work, he would
still be disabled under the GRID regulations. Pl.'s Mot.
at 9, 21.
Standard of review
the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for
review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of
the agency. The Court's review of that final
agency decision is both factual and legal. See 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)) (“The standard
of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct
legal standards were applied and whether the decision is
supported by substantial evidence.”)
factual findings at the administrative level are conclusive
“if supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) (2012). “Substantial evidence is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” 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). 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. Substantial evidence does
not, however, require a preponderance of the evidence.
See 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)). A court should meticulously review
the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence
nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
the review of the ALJ's legal decisions, the Court
reviews “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of
law that must be followed in weighing particular types of
evidence in disability cases.” Lax, 489 F.3d
at 1084. The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed
“to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . .
that she has done so.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92
F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).
if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings and
the correct legal standards were applied, the
Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not
entitled to relief. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214, Doyal, 331 F.3d
Sequential Evaluation Process
has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to
determine disability. See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540
U.S. 20, 24 (2003); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)
(2012). At the first three steps, the ALJ considers the
claimant's current work activity, the medical severity of
the claimant's impairments, and the requirements of the
Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4); Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. If a
claimant's impairments are not equal to one of those in
the Listing of Impairments, then the ALJ proceeds to the
first of three phases of step four and determines the
claimant's RFC. See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e). In phase two, the ALJ
determines the physical and mental demands of the
claimant's past relevant work, and in the third phase,
compares the claimant's RFC with the functional
requirements of his past relevant work to determine if the
claimant is still capable of performing his past work.
See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(f). If a claimant is not prevented from performing
his past work, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(f). The claimant bears the burden of
proof on the question of disability for the first four steps.
See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987);
Talbot v. Heckler, 814 F.2d 1456, 1460 (10th Cir.
claimant cannot return to his past work, then the
Commissioner bears the burden at the fifth step of showing
that the claimant is nonetheless capable of performing other
jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
See Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25; see also Williams
v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988)
(discussing the five-step sequential evaluation process in
THE ALJ'S DECISION
issued her decision on February 16, 2016. AR 34. At step one,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since February 20, 2015, the
amended alleged disability onset date. AR 24. At step two,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: degenerative joint disease of the bilateral
knees, right knee meniscus tear, obesity, hypertension,
malignant tumor of the prostate, post-prostatectomy, and
incontinence. AR 24.
three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's
impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically
equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 24. The ALJ found that
“the medical evidence fails to show that the
degenerative joint disease of [Plaintiff's] bilateral
knees and/or his right knee meniscus tear have resulted in an
inability to ambulate effectively, ” and thus
Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal
1.02A of the listings. AR 25. The ALJ also noted
that the medical evidence did not show that Plaintiff had an
impairment in each of his upper extremities, and thus
Plaintiff failed to meet the requirements of section
1.02B of the listings. AR 25. Additionally, the
ALJ determined that the medical evidence did not show that
Plaintiff suffered from any of the conditions enumerated
within section 14.09 of the listings. AR 25. The ALJ did not
consider whether Plaintiff's remaining severe
impairments, other than those concerning his knees, met or
medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 24-25.
none of Plaintiff's impairments satisfied an applicable
Listing, the ALJ moved on to step four and assessed
Plaintiff's RFC. AR ...