United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Fashing, United States Magistrate-Judge.
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Karen Kirker
Correa's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with
Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 19), which was fully briefed on
June 20, 2017. See Docs. 21, 22, 23. The parties
consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs.
5, 17, 18. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and
being fully advised in the premises, I find that the
Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”)
credibility assessment is not supported by substantial
evidence. I therefore GRANT Ms. Correa's motion and
remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings
consistent with this opinion.
Standard of Review
standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the
Commissioner's final decision 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.
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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
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).
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) 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 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); 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.
Background and Procedural History
Correa was born in 1959, and completed a bachelor's
degree in English and a master's degree in counseling. AR
199, 477-78. She worked at Western New Mexico
University for approximately 18 years-as an academic advisor
and then as a Director of Special Needs in the Office of
Disability. AR 45-49, 199, 477. Ms. Correa filed an
application for disability insurance benefits on January 29,
2013-alleging disability since January 1, 2010 due to
fibromyalgia. AR 160-66, 198. The Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) denied her claim initially
on October 17, 2013. AR 102-05. The SSA denied her claims on
reconsideration on April 4, 2014. AR 111-15. Ms. Correa
requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 116-17. On December 30,
2015, ALJ Eric Weiss held a hearing. AR 38-74. ALJ Weiss
issued his unfavorable decision on February 3, 2016. AR
one, the ALJ found that Ms. Correa had not engaged in
substantial, gainful activity since January 1, 2010, her
alleged onset date. AR 24. At step two, the ALJ found that
Ms. Correa suffered from the following severe impairments:
inflammatory arthritis, fibromyalgia, and obesity.
Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms.
Correa's impairments, alone or in combination, met or
medically equaled a Listing. AR 27-28. Because the ALJ found
that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed
Ms. Correa's RFC. AR 28-31. The ALJ found Ms. Correa had
the RFC to
lift 20 pounds occasionally, lift and carry 10 pounds
frequently, and push and pull the same. She is able to walk
and stand for six hours per eight-hour workday and sit for
six hours per eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. She is
able to occasionally . . . climb ramps and stairs but never
ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She is able to occasionally
stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. She is able to frequently
handle and finger with her bilateral upper extremities.
Finally, she must avoid more than occasional exposure to
extreme cold and unprotected heights.
four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Correa was able to perform
her past relevant work as an educational advisor, and
therefore was not disabled. AR 31-32. On March 21, 2016, Ms.
Correa requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision
by the Appeals Council. AR 17- 18. On October 6, 2016, the
Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-6. Ms.
Correa timely filed her appeal to this Court on December 1,
2016. Doc. 1.
Ms. Correa's Claims
Correa raises four arguments for reversing and remanding this
case: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical
opinion of examining consultant Dr. Roger Felix; (2) the ALJ
failed to properly evaluate the medical opinion of examining
psychological consultant Dr. Rod J. Merta; (3) the ALJ failed
to make a proper credibility finding; (4) the ALJ improperly
delegated to the vocational expert responsibility for
determining the physical and mental demands of Ms.
Correa's past relevant work. Because I remand based on
the ALJ's failure to make a proper credibility finding, I
do not address the other alleged errors, which “may be
affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on
remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297,
1299 (10th Cir. 2003).
Correa argues that the ALJ gave “weak and
insufficient” reasons for finding her not credible.
Doc. 19 at 9. She argues that the medical evidence and the
statements cited by the ALJ do not constitute substantial
evidence for the ALJ's credibility finding. Id.
at 9-11. The Commissioner counters that the ALJ gave several
valid reasons, supported by substantial evidence, for
discounting Ms. Correa's subjective statements. Doc. 21
at 11-12. For the reasons discussed below, I agree with Ms.
Correa, and find that the ALJ's credibility findings are
not supported by substantial evidence.
considering a claimant's symptoms, the ALJ must follow a
two-step process: (1) the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant's medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to produce a claimant's symptoms,
and, if so, (2) the ALJ must evaluate the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of the claimant's
symptoms to determine the extent to which they limit the
claimant's functioning. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *2
(S.S.A. July 2, 1996). “[W]henever the individual's
statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally
limiting effects of pain or other symptoms are not
substantiated by objective medical evidence, the adjudicator
must make a finding on the credibility of the
individual's statements based on a consideration of the
entire case record.” Id. The ALJ must provide
“specific reasons for the finding on credibility,
supported by the evidence in the case record.”
Id. The ALJ's decision must be well-reasoned,
and the ALJ must draw “appropriate inferences and
conclusions” about the credibility of the
claimant's statements. Id. at *4-*5.
first step of considering Ms. Correa's symptoms, the ALJ
found that her medically determinable impairments reasonably
could be expected to produce her symptoms. AR 29. At the
second step, however, the ALJ found that her
“statements about the intensity, persistence, or
functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms
[were] not credible for the reasons explained in this
decision.” Id. After discussing some of the
medical records documenting Ms. Correa's obesity,
inflammatory arthritis, and fibromyalgia, the ALJ wrote a
single paragraph discussing how the objective medical
evidence did not support Ms. Correa's statements about
the functionally limiting effects of her symptoms:
Despite this evidence, however, other evidence suggests that
these impairments are not as limiting as the claimant
alleges. The claimant indicated in both December 2011 and
December 2013 that Prednisone helped to alleviate her
symptoms (Exs. 3F at 24, 11F at 4). In January 2014, she
indicated that she was comfortable enough to take Prednisone
only when she experienced flares (Ex. 12F at 6). In March
2014, she indicated that she was doing well despite a pain
flare (Ex. 18F at 36). Notably, she testified that she
currently takes Prednisone only once every two weeks,
approximately (HT). Moreover, she has exhibited normal
reflexes (Exs. 10F at 6, 16F at 24). She has demonstrated a
good grip, as well (Ex. 16F at 24). Importantly, ...