United States District Court, D. New Mexico
TROY G. SNOWDEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CARMEN E. GARZA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Troy G.
Snowden's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a
Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (the
“Motion”), (Doc. 14), filed August 28, 2017;
Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Response
to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the
Administrative Decision (the “Response”),
(Doc. 16), filed October 23, 2017; and Plaintiff's
Reply in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and
Remand for a Rehearing (the “Reply”), (Doc.
20), filed November 30, 2017.
Snowden applied for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) on September 24, 2013, and for
supplemental security income (“SSI”) on October
4, 2013. (Administrative Record “AR” 96-97). In
both applications, Mr. Snowden alleged disability beginning
September 26, 2013, due to epilepsy, asthma, memory problems,
a learning disability, and migraines. (AR 74, 85). Mr.
Snowden's applications were denied initially on December
16, 2013, (AR 84, 95), and upon reconsideration on May 30,
2014, (AR 109, 121). Mr. Snowden requested a hearing before
an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), (AR 139),
which was granted, and a hearing was held before ALJ Liliian
Richter on November 18, 2015. Mr. Snowden appeared and
testified at the hearing, along with Judith Beard, an
impartial vocational expert (“VE”). (AR 39). Mr.
Snowden was represented at the hearing by his current
counsel, Michael Armstrong. Id.
January 6, 2016, ALJ Richter issued her decision finding Mr.
Snowden not disabled at any time between his alleged onset
date through the date of the decision. (AR 33). Mr. Snowden
requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied,
(AR 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this
Snowden has appealed the ALJ's decision, arguing she
committed reversible error by: (1) failing to incorporate
medical opinions into Mr. Snowden's RFC; (2) failing to
follow the correct legal standard in rejecting two medical
opinions; (3) using the term “occasional” in her
question to the VE; (4) relying on the VE's unreliable
testimony; and (5) failing to follow the correct legal
standard for when the VE identifies jobs in low numbers.
(Doc. 16 at 1-2). 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 followed the correct legal standards and
supported her decision with substantial evidence, Mr.
Snowden's Motion should be DENIED.
Standard of Review
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.
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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of SSI and DIB, 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. §§ 404.1505(a),
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. §
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” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 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.
Snowden applied for DIB and SSI alleging epilepsy, asthma,
memory problems, a learning disability, and migraines
affected his ability to work. (AR 96-97). At step one, the
ALJ determined Mr. Snowden had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (AR 18). At
step two, the ALJ found Mr. Snowden has the following severe
impairments: seizure disorder, adjustment disorder with
depressed mood and anxiety, mild neurocognitive disorder due
to epilepsy, and generalized anxiety disorder. Id.
At step three, the ALJ concluded none of Mr. Snowden's
impairments, either singly or in combination, met or equaled
the severity of a Listing impairment. (AR 19-21).
then found Mr. Snowden has the RFC to perform a full range of
work at all exertional levels with several non-exertional
limitations. Mr. Snowden can: frequently balance and climb
ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical
parts, or other work hazards; and never operate a motor
vehicle. (AR 21). Further, he should avoid concentrated
exposure to dust, odors, fumes, and other pulmonary
irritants. Id. Finally, Mr. Snowden can: perform
simple, routine, repetitive work; have occasional contact
with supervisors, coworkers, and the public; tolerate few
changes in the routine work setting; and meet end of day
goals, though he cannot perform at production pace.
based Mr. Snowden's RFC on her evaluation of Mr.
Snowden's medical records and opinion evidence in the
record. First, the ALJ discussed Mr. Snowden's history of
epilepsy. (AR 22-24). The ALJ then discussed several
treatment records and opinions, including those from
Certified Nurse Practitioner (“CNP”) Jimmy
Calzado, (AR 24-26), Mr. Snowden's psychiatrist, Yvonne
Hall, M.D., (AR 28), and social workers Amy Chapman and Greg
Bussey, (AR 28-29). After treating Mr. Snowden in 2014, CNP
Calzado opined that Mr. Snowden's impairments were marked
in several areas and were severe enough to qualify as
Listing-level impairments. (AR 419-23). Ultimately, the ALJ
gave CNP Calzado's opinion little weight because his
opinion was not supported by other evidence in the record,
his own treatment notes, or the opinion itself. (AR 16).
the ALJ discussed the opinion of Dr. Hall, Mr. Snowden's
psychiatrist. Contrary to CNP Calzado, Dr. Hall found that
Mr. Snowden had slight to moderate limitations which did not
rise to Listing-level severity. (AR 683-86). The ALJ gave
this opinion significant weight, as it was supported by the
evidence of record and Mr. Snowden's testimony at the
hearing. (AR 28). The ALJ found that Mr. Snowden's RFC
accorded with the mental health limitations found by Dr.
the ALJ discussed Ms. Chapman and Mr. Bussey's opinions.
Ms. Chapman indicated that Mr. Snowden had a marked
limitation in understanding and remembering detailed
instructions, but otherwise his limitations were slight to
moderate. (AR 688-89). The ALJ concluded Ms. Chapman's
opinion was consistent with Dr. Hall's, and gave it
significant weight. (AR 28). Mr. Bussey, on the other hand,
stated that Mr. Snowden had multiple marked limitations. (AR
690-91). Mr. Bussey also thought Mr. Snowden met
Listing-level impairments. (AR 692-93). The ALJ stated he had
reviewed Mr. Bussey's treatment notes and found
“little in them to support his opinion.” (AR 29).