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Jackson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 12, 2018

AMBER J. JACKSON, Plaintiff,
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 Amber J. Jackson's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 22), which was fully briefed on June 22, 2017. See Docs. 24, 26, 27. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Doc. 25. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to conduct a proper treating physician analysis of Dr. E.B. Hall's opinion. I therefore GRANT Ms. Jackson's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for further 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, 373 F.3d at 1118. “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

         Ms. Jackson was born in 1980, was in special education throughout school due to a learning disability, and dropped out in the tenth grade. AR 177, 218, 240, 317.[4] She has worked at fast food restaurants, and as a babysitter for family members, but has not worked since 2012, and none of her work reached the level of substantial gainful employment. AR 30, 212-13, 219. Ms. Jackson filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 7, 2012 and April 7, 2012 respectively-alleging disability since January 1, 2012 due to manic depression and bipolar disorder. AR 177-84, 209, 218.[5] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on August 13, 2012. AR 120-23. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on June 6, 2013. AR 124-30. Ms. Jackson requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 131-32. On January 6, 2015, ALJ Barry O'Melinn held a hearing. AR 37-57. ALJ O'Melinn issued his unfavorable decision on April 13, 2015. AR 11-36.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Jackson had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since January 1, 2012, her alleged onset date. AR 16. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Jackson suffered from the following severe impairments: “Organic Brain Syndrome, Affective disorder; Anxiety Disorder; Attention Deficit Disorder; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; Personality Disorder; Borderline Intellectual Dysfunction; and, obstructive sleep apnea.” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Jackson's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 17-20. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Jackson's RFC. AR 20-30. The ALJ found Ms. Jackson had the RFC

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. Claimant can understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions and make commensurate work related decisions, respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers and work situations, deal with routine changes in work setting, maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to and including 2 hours at a time with normal breaks throughout the work day. She must work in a low stress job with only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. She is suitable for jobs involving work primarily with things and not people.

AR 20.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Jackson did not have any past relevant work. AR 30. The ALJ found Ms. Jackson not disabled at step five because she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as dishwasher, laundry worker, and packer. AR 30-31. On May 28, 2015, Ms. Jackson requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR 7-10. On July 26, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-6. Ms. Jackson timely filed her appeal to this Court on August 25, 2016. Doc. 1.[6]

         IV. Ms. ...

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