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Carlile v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 23, 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 of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. 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 a Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum, filed July 13, 2017 (Doc. 24), the Commissioner's response in opposition, filed September 13, 2017 (Doc. 26), and Plaintiff's reply, filed September 27, 2017 (Doc. 27). Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and should be granted.

         I. 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 1262. “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).


         On January 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, alleging that she had been disabled since September 30, 2010, due to diabetes, Meniere's disease, and tinnitus. (AR 125, 148). Following a hearing held on November 17, 2015, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David R. Wurm concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled and her claim was denied.

         In making his decision, ALJ Wurm employed in the required five-step, sequential disability analysis, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of September 30, 2010.[2] (AR 22). At step two, ALJ Wurm found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, tinnitus, Meniere's disease, [3] diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, and osteoarthritis of the left knee. (AR 22). 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. Id.

         ALJ Wurm next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), finding that Plaintiff has the RFC[4] to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except for occasional use of foot controls; occasional climbing of ramps or stairs; no climbing of ladders or scaffolds; occasional balancing and crouching; no exposure to unprotected heights or hazards such as moving mechanical parts; and, exposure to no more than moderate noise levels.

(AR 23).

         ALJ Wurm then proceeded to step four of the disability analysis where he concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a telemarketer and, therefore, was not disabled. (AR 27). The ALJ's decision became final when, on October 11, 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff's request for reversal and remand is based on contentions that ALJ Wurm (1) improperly assessed evidence provided by Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Vittal T. Pai; (2) improperly assessed Plaintiff's RFC; (3) failed to make the required findings at step four; and (4) failed to develop the record. Plaintiff also contends that the Appeals ...

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