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Correa v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 26, 2018

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 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.

         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 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. 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).

         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) 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); 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. Correa was born in 1959, and completed a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in counseling. AR 199, 477-78.[4] 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 19-37.[5]

         At step 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.

         AR 28.

         At step 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.[6]

         IV. Ms. Correa's Claims

         Ms. 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).

         V. Analysis

         Ms. 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.

         In 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).[7] “[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.

         At the 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, ...

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