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Aguirre v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 8, 2017

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Miguel Antonio Aguirre's Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 20), filed July 31, 2017; and 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. 24), filed September 13, 2017. No reply has been filed and the time for doing so has passed. United States District Judge Martha Vazquez referred this case to Magistrate Judge Carmen E. Garza to perform legal analysis and recommend an ultimate disposition. (Doc. 26).

         Mr. Aguirre filed an application for supplemental security income on September 17, 2012, alleging disability beginning August 15, 2012. (Administrative Record “AR” 13). Mr. Aguirre claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depression, and anxiety. (AR 227). Mr. Aguirre's application was denied initially on January 22, 2013, and upon reconsideration on May 1, 2013. (AR 13). Mr. Aguirre requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on April 22, 2015, before ALJ Barry O'Melinn. (AR 32). Mr. Aguirre and Leslie J. White, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and Mr. Aguirre was represented by attorney Ione Gutierrez. (AR 35-57).

         On June 22, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Mr. Aguirre not disabled at any time between his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 26). Mr. Aguirre requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 8), which was denied, (AR 2-5), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Mr. Aguirre, who is proceeding in this appeal pro se, now argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly consider the opinions of his treating physicians and therapists; (2) failing to find that his PTSD and depression constitute severe impairments; (3) using the Medical Vocational Guidelines to deny benefits; (4) failing to consider the effect of Mr. Aguirre's inability to find and maintain employment; and (5) “not conducting an expert analysis of the mental disorders of PTSD and Major Depression and how they can affect Plaintiff's occupational base.” (Doc. 1 at 1). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because the Court finds that the Commissioner followed the correct legal standards and supported his decision with substantial evidence, the Court recommends that Mr. Aguirre's Motion 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 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)).

         Because Mr. Aguirre proceeds pro se, the Court must construe his pleadings liberally and hold them to a less stringent standard than is required of a party represented by counsel. Weinbaum v. City of Las Cruces, 541 F.3d 1017, 1029 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991)). Liberal construction requires courts to make some allowance for a pro se litigant's “failure to cite proper legal authority, his confusion of various legal theories, his poor syntax and sentence construction, or his unfamiliarity with pleading requirements.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1110. However, “the Court cannot take on the responsibility of serving as the litigant's attorney in constructing arguments and searching the record.” Garrett v. Selby Connor Maddux & Janer, 425 F.3d 836, 840 (10th Cir. 2005).

         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) (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. § 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. § 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. Aguirre applied for supplemental security income due to PTSD, depression, and anxiety. (AR 227). At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr. Aguirre had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 17, 2012, the alleged onset date. (AR 15). At step two, the ALJ concluded Mr. Aguirre has the following two severe impairments, an affective disorder and anxiety. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that neither of Mr. Aguirre's impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. (AR 16-18).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Mr. Aguirre has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. (AR 18). Regarding Mr. Aguirre's nonexertional limitations, the ALJ found that Mr. Aguirre can: understand, carry out, and remember simple, routine, one-to-two step instructions and make commensurate work related decisions; respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work situations; deal with routine changes in the work setting; and maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to and including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout ...

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