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Snowden v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 16, 2018

TROY G. SNOWDEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS 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.

         Mr. 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.

         On 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 appeal.

         Mr. 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.

         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 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. 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For 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. § 416.920.

         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. §§ 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.

         III. Background

         Mr. 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).

         The ALJ 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. Id.

         The ALJ 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).

         Next, 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. Hall. Id.

         Finally, 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). ...

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