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Baldonado v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 26, 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 Tommy Antheny Baldonado's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 20), which was fully briefed on June 15, 2017. See Docs. 21, 25, 26. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 7, 8. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find no error in the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) finding that Mr. Baldonado is capable of returning to his past relevant work. I therefore find that Mr. Baldonado's motion is not well-taken and will deny it.

         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), 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; 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), 416.920(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. Baldonado was born in 1954, graduated from high school, and worked as a sign maker, a sign shop supervisor, and also performed general maintenance. AR 67, 179, 201, 206. Mr. Baldonado filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on February 26, 2013-alleging disability since February 1, 2013 due to chronic pain, back pain, knee pain, and shoulder pain. AR 77-78, 197, 200. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his claims initially on October 3, 2013. AR 115-19. The SSA denied his claims on reconsideration on October 24, 2013. AR 121-26. Mr. Baldonado requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 131-32. On January 28, 2015, ALJ Eric Weiss held a hearing. AR 23-76. ALJ Weiss issued his unfavorable decision on March 18, 2015. AR 7-22.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Baldonado had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since February 1, 2013, his alleged onset date. AR 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Baldonado suffered from the following severe impairments:

lower back pain (suspected b/1 pars defects at ¶ 5 associated with grade one spondylolisthesis on the S1 and degenerative change at the L5-S1) and left knee pain (lateral patellar tilt with suspected patellar chondral degeneration (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).

         Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Baldonado's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 13. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Mr. Baldonado's RFC. AR 13-16. The ALJ found Mr. Baldonado had the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). He can lift, carry, push or pull twenty pounds occasionally, ten pounds frequently. He can stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for two hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but must never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, yet he must never crawl. Further, he must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, and must never be exposed to unprotected heights.

         AR 13.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Baldonado was able to perform his past relevant work as a sign shop supervisor, and was therefore not disabled. AR 16. The ALJ made an alternate step five finding that Mr. Baldonado could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as repair order clerk. AR 17. On April 10, 2015, Mr. Baldonado requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR 6. On July 1, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-5. Mr. Baldonado timely filed his appeal to this Court on September 1, 2016. Doc. 1.[4]

         IV. Mr. Baldonado's Claims

         Mr. Baldonado raises two arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) the ALJ's step four finding that he was capable of returning to his past relevant work as a sign shop supervisor is contrary to law and unsupported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ's alternate step five finding is not supported by substantial evidence. I find no error with the ALJ's step four finding, and affirm the ALJ's decision on this basis. Because I find no error at step four, I need not address the alleged error with the alternate finding at step five. See Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (internal citation omitted) (“If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.”).

         V. ...

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