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Martinez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 21, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Felix Martinez seeks review of the Social Security Administration's denial of his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplement security income. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 & 1381a. Pursuant to an order of reference from Chief United States District Judge William Johnson to propose findings and recommend a disposition, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the Court has reviewed the administrative record and considered Martinez's motion to reverse and remand the agency's decision, the Commissioner's response in opposition, and Martinez's reply. (See Docs. 13, 19, 21, & 22). Because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to properly evaluate Martinez's credibility in determining he could perform sedentary work, the Court RECOMMENDS Martinez's motion be GRANTED and the matter be REMANDED to the agency for additional proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Martinez alleged disability beginning June 2, 2012 at age forty four and continuing until December 31, 2017, the date he last qualified for benefits.[1] (AR 18). Following a hearing, ALJ Michelle Lindsay denied Martinez's application for benefits. (AR 15-33). At step three of the five-part framework[2] used to evaluate disability, the ALJ concluded that Martinez's internal knee derangement, gout, and degenerative joint disease of the shoulders, conditions which the ALJ determined were severe, neither met nor equaled a listed impairment the agency has determined to be presumptively disabling. (AR 21-22). At steps four and five, the ALJ decided that while Martinez could not return to his past heavy labor positions, he retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work[3] and qualified for jobs abundant in the national economy such as addresser, toy stuffer, and document preparer. (AR 22-29). The ALJ's decision became the agency's final action on November 1, 2016 when the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-5). This appeal followed. (Doc. 1).


         This Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). If substantial evidence supports the conclusion that the plaintiff is not disabled and the ALJ followed the law, the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. See Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). The term “substantial evidence” means that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1118 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Even if the Court could reach the opposite conclusion, the decision must stand if the record as a whole is not “overwhelmed by other evidence” to the contrary or unless a “mere scintilla” supports it. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Martinez challenges the ALJ's decision on three grounds: the ALJ failed to (1) properly evaluate Martinez's credibility in rejecting the limiting effects of his symptoms and pain; (2) conduct a function-by-function analysis in crafting Martinez's RFC; and (3) correctly calculate the number of jobs available in the national economy that Martinez is capable of performing. Because the Court concludes that the ALJ improperly evaluated Martinez's credibility, his self-described limitations, if credited, will affect the ALJ's RFC on remand, and the step-five jobs' finding is dependent on an RFC that incorporates all Martinez's functional limitations, the Court recommends a remand on the first issue. See Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         A. Adverse Credibility Finding

         If Martinez is believed, he cannot perform sedentary work. At the administrative hearing, Martinez testified that his pain precludes him from walking more than a block, even with a cane, standing more than five to ten minutes, sitting for more than ten to fifteen minutes, and lifting more than five to ten pounds. (AR 51-53). Under agency guidelines, however, sedentary work requires an ability “to walk 2 hours out of an 8-hour workday” and sit “about 6 hours of an 8hour workday.” SSR 96-6p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 6, *8-9. The ALJ did not credit Martinez's self-described limitations and therefore did not include them in the RFC. Although Martinez's “impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” the ALJ found Martinez's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible[.]” (AR 23). Martinez argues this adverse credibility determination amounts to reversible error.

         Although “[c]redibility determinations are peculiarly the province of the finder of fact, ” an adverse finding must “be closely and affirmatively linked to substantial evidence and not just a conclusion in the guise of findings.” Huston v. Bowen, 838 F.2d 1125, 1133 (10th Cir. 1988). In practical terms, “a conclusion in the guise of findings” means the ALJ's reliance on boilerplate language reciting the regulations governing credibility determinations and concluding “that full consideration ha[s] been given to the subjective complaints in accordance with the [regulatory factors].” Hardman v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 676, 679 (10th Cir. 2004). The purpose of the ALJ's obligation to closely and affirmatively link findings to the record is to ensure that a reviewing court can meaningfully “assess whether relevant evidence adequately supports the ALJ's conclusion [.]” Id. at 679.

         In evaluating a plaintiff's claims of disabling limitations, the ALJ is required to consider “the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record.” SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *4 (March 16, 2016). The ALJ also examines (1) the plaintiff's daily activities; (2) “the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of pain or other symptoms”; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) medication taken for the pain or symptoms, including “type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects”; (5) other forms of treatment or others measures used to alleviate symptoms; and (6) other factors that concern the plaintiff's “functional limitations and restrictions due to pain or other symptoms.” Id., at *7.

         The Court cannot discern where the ALJ undertook the required analysis. The ALJ's decision makes a single conclusory reference to Martinez's credibility at the beginning of the RFC discussion. (AR 23) (concluding that Martinez's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effect of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in the decision”). But the Tenth Circuit has held such language alone to be insufficient. See Hardman, 362 F.3d at 678. Although promised by the ALJ, there are in fact no reasons given, which makes it impossible to determine whether evidence supports them. Instead, the ALJ simply recites the medical evidence and in a way that lends support Martinez's subjective complaints.

         For example, the ALJ observed Martinez had diagnoses of gout and osteoarthritis; underwent multiple knee surgeries; diagnostic imagining establishing degenerative changes in the spine, knees and shoulders, joint effusion, meniscal tears, focal bone marrow edema, and inflammation and cartilage softening of the patella; and reported knee, shoulder, hip, and hand pain to his medical providers. (AR 22-27). In terms of daily living, the ALJ highlighted Martinez's reports to his doctor that he could not take his socks off because of an inability to bend his knees and that the same doctor observed Martinez was somewhat limited by pain most of the time. ...

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