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Griego v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 23, 2018

JOYCE J. GRIEGO, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 20] (“Motion”), filed on September 15, 2017. The Commissioner responded on November 14, 2017. [Doc. 22]. Plaintiff replied on November 30, 2017. [Doc. 23]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 8]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standard in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Knaus. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted. The Commissioner's final decision will be reversed and remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence four).

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[1] 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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their 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. The 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 a 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 [Commissioner]'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)).

         “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 omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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) either meet or equal one of the Listings of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 7, 2012. Tr. 163. She alleged a disability-onset date of June 30, 2009. Tr. 11. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. ALJ Michelle K. Lindsay held a hearing on February 12, 2015, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 11, 27-62. Plaintiff and her attorney appeared, and the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Thomas A. Grenier. Id.

         The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on June 10, 2015. Tr. 21. She found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2014. Tr. 13. At step one she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period, which was between her alleged onset date (June 30, 2009) and her date last insured (September 30, 2014). Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; tendinopathy of the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons, left shoulder; and chronic pain syndrome.” Id. She found that Plaintiff's “alleged depression” was not severe. Tr. 14.

         At step three the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Id. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 15-19. The ALJ found that, through her date last insured,

Plaintiff had the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยง] 404.1567(b) except [she] can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can frequently perform forward and lateral reaching with the non-dominant upper extremity; can occasionally reach overhead with the non-dominant upper ...

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