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Dorsainville v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 31, 2018

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 Jetto Dorsainville's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (Doc. 18), which was fully briefed on May 31, 2017. Docs. 22, 23, 24. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 6, 7. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standards in weighing the opinion of non-examining state agency psychiatric consultant Dr. Scott Walker. The Court therefore GRANTS Mr. Dorsainville's motion and remands 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). “‘The 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 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 1260-61. 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 of proof 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. Dorsainville, currently age 35, graduated high school, and served in the United States Air Force for fifteen years. AR 151, 195.[4] Mr. Dorsainville filed an application for disability insurance benefits on September 18, 2014-alleging disability since August 11, 2014 due to degenerative arthritis, chest and neck pain, asthma/bronchitis, left hip sprain, chronic abdominal pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), headaches, hypertension, sleep apnea, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”). AR 151-57, 194. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his claim initially on January 6, 2015. AR 94-97. The SSA denied his claims on reconsideration on April 8, 2015. AR 99-101. Mr. Dorsainville requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 102-03. On November 4, 2015, ALJ Myriam C. Fernandez Rice held a hearing. AR 37-66. ALJ Fernandez Rice issued her unfavorable decision on December 1, 2015. AR 17-36.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Dorsainville was insured for disability benefits through March 31, 2019. AR 22. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Bennett had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since August 11, 2014. Id. Because Mr. Dorsainville had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Dorsainville had the following severe impairments: “asthma; sleep apnea; mild degenerative lumbar disc disease; hypertension; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and alcohol abuse addiction disorder.” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Dorsainville's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing.

         AR 22-24. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Mr. Dorsainville's RFC. AR 24-30. The ALJ found that:

         [T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) as follows:

• The claimant is able to lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently;
• The claimant is able to stand and/or walk and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks;
• The claimant should avoid even moderate exposure to environmental irritants, such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, chemicals, ...

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