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Dalton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 7, 2017

RONALD J. DALTON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Ronald J. Dalton's Motion to Remand or Reverse and Brief in Support of Motion to Remand, filed January 1, 2017, and fully briefed on May 4, 2017. Docs. 20, 21, 25, 28. The parties have consented to my entering a final judgment in this case. Docs. 6, 9, 10. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standards in weighing the opinions of two examining medical sources. I therefore GRANT Mr. Dalton's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. 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). “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 and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its 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. A 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 the Court may not reweigh 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 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). However, “‘[t]he 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) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[3] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Mr. Dalton was born on April 23, 1971. AR[4] 26, 107. His mother committed suicide when he was nine. AR 1385. By the ninth grade, Mr. Dalton got in trouble because he was doing a lot of drugs and was “locked up in a mental ward, ” remaining in the state's custody until he turned eighteen. AR 1385-86. Mr. Dalton was never able to obtain his GED, and has worked different jobs as a way of educating himself. AR 1380, 1386. His past relevant work includes working as a cook's helper, a dishwasher, in construction and labor, and as a cashier at a convenience store. AR 1391-92. At the time of the hearing, Mr. Dalton was married and living with his wife in an RV in Moriarty, New Mexico. AR 1379, 1383-84.

         Mr. Dalton worked until March 1, 2013, when he was struck by an automobile while he was walking or riding his bike through an intersection, which ultimately resulted in a total right knee replacement. AR 303, 1375-76. He currently makes money by panhandling and occasionally chopping weeds. AR 1383-84. Mr. Dalton testified that he is unable to work because he is too honest during interviews, and explains to potential employers that he does not “want to be pushed to work too hard” and reinjure his knee. AR 1379. When asked why he could not do work if he were permitted to sit all day, Mr. Dalton responded that such jobs are not available in Moriarty, where he is currently living, but that he “would have no problem trying to learn that kind of stuff.” AR 1379. Mr. Dalton testified that he wanted to go to school to get his diploma “in something, ” although he didn't know what. Id.

         Mr. Dalton filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental income benefits on April 5, 2013, alleging disability since March 1, 2013, due to “leg injury resulting from being struck by car on bicycle, hip problems, [and] back problems.” AR 26, 107, 110, 119, 1360-65. Mr. Dalton's application for benefits was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 26-51, 54-64, 73. On August 4, 2015, ALJ Deborah Rose conducted a hearing, at which Mr. Dalton and Mary Diane Weber, a vocational expert, testified. AR 1366-97. The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on December 7, 2015. AR 13-23.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Dalton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of March 1, 2013. AR 15. Because Mr. Dalton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Dalton suffered from the severe impairments of “degenerative joint disease, medial meniscus derangement, and torn ACL of right knee, now status post, total knee replacement (TKR), depression disorder, learning disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), history of poly-substance dependence, reportedly in remission.” Id. The ALJ found that Mr. Dalton had two nonsevere impairments: hypertension and a MRSA[5] infection. AR 15-16. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Dalton's impairments-alone or in combination-met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 16- 17.

         Because none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ moved on to step four. At step four, the ALJ found that:

[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than a full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c)[.] He has the ability to lift/carry, push/pull 25-pounds frequently, 50-pounds occasionally, stand/walk six to 8 hours in an 8-hour day, and sit six to 8 hours per day. He can occasionally climb, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and only occasionally operate foot controls with the right lower extremity. He can understand and carry out simple instructions, can have superficial and incidental work-related interaction with coworkers and supervisors, but no public interaction required to complete job duties.

AR 17. Applying this RFC, the ALJ determined that Mr. Dalton is capable of performing his past relevant work as a cook's helper. AR 21. The ALJ alternatively found at step five that “[Mr. Dalton] is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy[, ]” such as cleaner II or laundry laborer. AR 22-23.

         Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Dalton was not disabled. AR 23. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Dalton's request for review on February 25, 2016. AR 5-7. On April 8, 2016, Mr. Dalton timely appealed the Commissioner's decision to this Court. Doc. 1.

         IV. Mr. Dalton's Claims

         Mr. Dalton raises eleven arguments on appeal. He contends the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly assessing the burden of proof at step five; (2) making an improper mental medical assessment and RFC; (3) failing to apply the standards of 20 C.F.R. § 1527; (4) rejecting the opinions of Dr. Rajesh and his staff; (5) criticizing the use of GAF scores by various practitioners; (6) rejecting Dr. Krueger's assessment; (7) failing to conduct a drug abuse and alcohol analysis as required by SSR 13-2; (8) improperly assessing Mr. Dalton's credibility; (9) improperly finding a “history of polysubstance abuse” to be a severe impairment at step two; (10) improperly finding that Mr. Dalton is only mildly restricted in his social functioning because he can panhandle; and (11) that the ALJ's “Physical RFC on knee with no post[-]surgery opinion is insubstantial evidence.” Doc. 20 at 1-2.

         Because I remand based on the ALJ's failure to appropriately weigh the conclusions of Drs. Rajesh and Krueger, I do not address the other alleged errors, which “may be affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         V. ...

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