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Trejo Martinez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 7, 2018

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



         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, §§ 1381-1383f. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum, filed April 10, 2017 (Doc. 20), the Commissioner's response in opposition, filed May 24, 2017 (Doc. 24), and Plaintiff's reply, filed June 30, 2017 (Doc. 28). Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and should be denied.


         On June 5, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income, alleging that she had been disabled since June 30, 2011, due to depression, a back injury, and arthritis. AR 69. On April 10, 2015, it was determined that Plaintiff was not disabled and her claim was denied. AR 97-98. This determination was affirmed on January 26, 2016, AR 128-29, and a subsequent hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), held on April 25, 2016, again ended in a denial. AR 16-29. The ALJ's decision became final when, on August 1, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR 1-4. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Council denies a request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision). See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5).

         II. STANDARD

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court must examine the record as a whole, “including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. at 162. “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.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Plaintiff's claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Disability Framework

         “Disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, is the inability “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(3)(A); § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act further adds that for the purposes of § 1382c(3)(A) and § 423(d)(1)(A):

an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(3)(B); § 423(d)(2)(A).

         When evaluating a disability claim under this standard, the ALJ employs a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.[1] In the first four steps, the claimant must prove that he or she (1) is not engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets the twelve month duration requirement; (3) has an impairment, or combination thereof, that meets or equals a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1; and (4) is unable to engage in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (a)(4)(i)-(iv). If the disability claim survives step four, the burden shifts to the ALJ to prove, at step five, that the claimant is able to adjust to other jobs presently available in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1520(a)(4)(v). See also Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010).

         Steps four and five are based on an assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) which gauges “what the claimant is still functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments.” Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         In the case at bar, ALJ Rolph engaged in the sequential analysis set forth above, first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 30, 2015.[2] AR 21. At step two, ALJ Rolph found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and adjustment disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. AR 22.

         ALJ Rolph next assessed Plaintiff's RFC, finding that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she is fully capable of learning, remembering and performing simple, routine and repetitive work tasks, involving simple work instructions, which are performed in a routine, predictable and low stress work environment, defined as one in which there is a regular pace, few workplace changes, and no "over the shoulder" supervision. She can attend and concentrate for two to four hours at a time with regular breaks. She may have occasional and superficial contact with supervisors, coworkers and the public.

AR 23-24. Based on this assessment, ALJ Rolph determined, at step four, that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a firefighter. AR 27.

         Proceeding to step five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” AR 29. Specifically, he determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform the requirements of Assembly Worker (DOT 706.684-022), Garment Sorter (DOT 222.687-014), and Wire Cutter (728.684-022). AR 29. Accordingly, ALJ Rolph ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id.

         C. Challenges to the ALJ's Determination

         In support of her request for reversal and remand, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ (1) improperly weighed the opinion evidence of consultative examiner, Carla Buckner, LISW; (2) improperly weighed “other medical source” evidence; (3) improperly evaluated Plaintiff's symptoms; (4) improperly assessed Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score; (5) failed to consider Plaintiff's physical limitations in conjunction with her mental impairments; and (6) reached an erroneous conclusion at step five of his analysis. Plaintiff, however, fails to sufficiently develop these allegations into contentions requiring review.

         Plaintiff devotes almost the entirety of her twenty-five (25) page motion to a summary of the medical evidence of record. True, Plaintiff details this evidence under headings and subheadings including, “Improper weighing of consultative psychologist and counselor opinions” (Doc. 20, p. 7); “Failure to weigh the other mental health treatment evidence” (Id. at 11); “Improper reliance on absence of mental health treatment, inconsistencies” (Id. at 19); “RFC error regarding physical limitations” (Id. at 21); and “The ALJ Failed to Clarify the VE Testimony” (Id. at 24). Yet, the argumentation attached to these allegations is relegated to a few sentences at the end of each section. And, what little argument can be found is undeveloped and largely unsupported. See Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012) (“We will consider and discuss only those of her contentions that have been adequately briefed for our review.”); Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1065 (10th Cir. 2009) (declining to consider undeveloped argumentation and deeming the issue waived); United States v. Wooten, 377 F.3d 1134, 1145 (10th Cir. 2004) (“The court will not consider such issues adverted to in a perfunctory manner, unaccompanied by some effort at developed argumentation.”) ...

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