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Aguilar v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 5, 2018

ELIZABETH AGUILAR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Motion to Remand or Reverse (Doc. 17), filed on August 29, 2017. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 6, 7, 9. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Ms. Elizabeth Aguilar (Plaintiff) filed an application with the Social Security Administration for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act on December 13, 2012. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 186-87. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of May 15, 2008. See AR at 186. Because Plaintiff's earning record showed that she had “acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through March 31, 2033[, ]” Plaintiff was required to “establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to a period of disability and [DIB].” AR at 13.

         Disability Determination Services determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 68-82) and on reconsideration (AR at 83-102). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her application. AR at 113-14. Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the second de novo hearing.[2] See AR at 33-67. ALJ Myriam C. Fernandez Rice issued an unfavorable decision on October 8, 2015. AR at 10-32. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 8-9), which the council denied on October 31, 2016 (AR at 1-5). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

          A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a sequential five-step evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (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 (3) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), she is unable to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of her medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that” the claimant retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given [her] age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [3] ALJ Rice found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2008, the alleged onset date.” AR at 15 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: a history of a head injury resulting in loss of vision in the left eye; headaches; vertigo; an anxiety related disorder; an affective disorder; and a chronic pain disorder.” AR at 15 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). ALJ Rice also noted the following nonsevere impairments: “impairments due to gastroesophageal reflux disease, a history of treatment for syphilis, a history of uterine fibroid tumors, and a history of alcohol abuse in partial remission . . . .” AR at 15.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 16 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). At Step Four, the ALJ considered the evidence of record, including records from Sandia Vision Center, Lovelace Women's Hospital, Family and Children's Eye Care Center of New Mexico, La Cueva Family Health Care, Presbyterian Family Health Care, a consultative psychological evaluation with Louis Wynne, Ph.D., South Valley Medical, University of New Mexico Hospital, Rio Grande Counseling & Guidance Services, Will Kaufman, M.D., Konstantin Konstantinov, M.D., a Third Party Function Report from Plaintiff's sister, Paula Chavez, and testimony from Plaintiff. AR at 17-24.

         ALJ Rice found that Plaintiff has been “unable to perform any past relevant work.” AR at 24 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565). Ultimately, the ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff has the [RFC] to perform medium work as defined in 20 [C.F.R.] 404.1567(c) except that she can lift up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; should avoid even moderate exposure to moving machinery or unprotected heights; limited to occupations not requiring left eye peripheral acuity or depth perception (has no vision in her left eye); is able to maintain, understand, and remember simple work instructions with occasional changes in work setting; and can perform only occasional interaction with the public.

         AR at 18. The ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff can perform the jobs of janitor, dishwasher, and night cleaner. AR at 25. The ALJ relied on testimony of the VE to conclude that “considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC], [Plaintiff] is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” AR at 25. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 15, 2008, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 25 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted) (alteration in original)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks and quotations omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the [C]ourt would justifiably have made a different choice ...


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