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Baiett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 30, 2017

DOUGLAS ANDREW BAIETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS 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”), [1] 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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 46.

         Plaintiff 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.

         On 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) (2017).

         Plaintiff timely filed his appeal in this Court on May 23, 2016. ECF No. 1.

         II. PLAINTIFF'S CLAIMS

         On 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.

         III. APPLICABLE LAW

         A. Standard of review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[2] 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.”)

         The 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 at 1214.

         As for 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).

         Ultimately, 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 at 760.

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The SSA 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. 1987).

         If the 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 detail).

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ 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.

         At step 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[3] 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[4] 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.[5] 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.

         Because none of Plaintiff's impairments satisfied an applicable Listing, the ALJ moved on to step four and assessed Plaintiff's RFC. AR ...


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