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Salazar v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 27, 2018

ALICE D. SALAZAR, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”), filed on June 19, 2017. ECF No. 20. The Commissioner responded on August 21, 2017. ECF No. 22. Plaintiff replied on September 7, 2017. ECF No. 23. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the briefing, the Court finds that Plaintiff's Motion is well taken and that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) ruling should be REVERSED and REMANDED. For the following reasons, the Court will GRANT the Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on November 4, 1956. Administrative R. (“AR”) 86, 1073. She graduated high school in May 1974 and then worked in the banking industry as an order clerk, loan officer, and as a customer service representative. AR 76-77, 86, 267-68.

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on March 19, 2014, followed by an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on October 10, 2014. AR 210-19. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on March 14, 2014, based on fibromyalgia, obstructive sleep apnea, hypersomnolence, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, short term memory and concentration impairments, difficulty comprehending and processing information, depression, irritability, anxiety, chronic fatigue, lightheadedness, sleep disturbances, and frequent urinary tract infections. AR 103. The SSA denied Plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. AR 99, 122. At her request, Plaintiff received a de novo hearing before ALJ Ann Farris, at which Plaintiff, her disability representative John Bishop, and vocational expert (“VE”) Karen Provine appeared. AR 45-85, 359-60. On May 19, 2016, the ALJ issued her decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). AR 19-37. Plaintiff appealed to the SSA Appeals Council, but it declined review. AR 1-3. As a consequence, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a) (2017).

         Plaintiff timely filed her appeal with this Court on November 23, 2016. ECF No. 1.


         Plaintiff advances seven grounds for relief. First, she argues that the ALJ erred by adopting the VE's testimony without clarification. Pl.'s Mot. 7-8, ECF No. 20. Second, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of Dr. Sharon Nunez, M.D., one of her treating physicians. Id. at 9-14. Third, she contends that the ALJ neglected to perform a specific analysis of Plaintiff's fibromyalgia and integrate the results into her RFC. Id. at 14-19. Fourth, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to include in her RFC a moderate limitation identified by Dr. John Owen, Ph.D. Id. at 20-21. Her fifth claim challenges the omission of a similar limitation identified by Dr. Charulata Nadiq, Psy.D. Id. at 21. Sixth, Plaintiff complains that her RFC did not properly account for her walking and standing limitations. Id. at 23-25. Lastly, Plaintiff asserts that the credibility finding made by the ALJ was contrary to the evidence and established law. Id. at 26-27.[1]


         A. Standard of Review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[2] The Court's review of that final agency decision is both factual and legal. See Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)) (“The standard of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.”).

         The factual findings at the administrative level are conclusive “if supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). “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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). An ALJ's 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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. Substantial evidence does not, however, require a preponderance of the evidence. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.

         As for the review of the ALJ's legal decisions, the Court examines “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed “to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that [he] has done so.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).

         Ultimately, if substantial evidence supports the ALJ'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; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214, Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4) (2016). At the first three steps, the ALJ considers the claimant's current work activity, the medical severity of the claimant's impairments, and the requirements of the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), & Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If a claimant's impairments are not equal to one of those in the Listing of Impairments, then the ALJ proceeds to the first of three phases of step four and determines the claimant's RFC. See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). In phase two, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work, and in the third phase, compares the claimant's RFC with the functional requirements of her past relevant work to determine if the claimant is still capable of performing her past work. See Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If a claimant is not prevented from performing her past work, then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the question of disability for the first four steps, and then the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Talbot v. Heckler, 814 F.2d 1456, 1460 (10th Cir. 1987).

         If the claimant cannot return to her past work, then the Commissioner bears the burden at the fifth step of showing that the claimant is nonetheless capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24-25; see also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988) (discussing the five-step sequential evaluation process in detail).


         The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of March 14, 2014. AR 21. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff to suffer the following severe impairments: (1) trigger finger, (2) diabetes mellitus, (3) hypothyroidism, (4) fibromyalgia, (5) mild osteoarthritis in the hands, (6) carpal tunnel syndrome, (7) right knee pain, (8) obstructive sleep apnea, (9) tarsal tunnel syndrome, (10) mild neurocognitive disorder due to obstructive sleep apnea, and (11) adjustment disorder with depression and anxiety. AR 21.

         At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 21-23. The ALJ first analyzed Plaintiff's physical impairments, finding that Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis of the hands did not, alone or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria set forth in Listing 1.02B (major dysfunction of a joint) or Listing 11.14 (peripheral neuropathies). AR 22. She reasoned that Plaintiff, upon examination, “was able to pick up small objects from a flat surface with no difficulty” and demonstrated satisfactory “motor function in her wrists.” AR 22. Further, the “[r]ange of motion in her wrists and fingers was normal.” AR 22.

         The ALJ then turned to Plaintiff's mental impairments, which she considered under Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). AR 53. The ALJ determined the evidence did not satisfy the paragraph B criteria of these Listings[3] “[b]ecause the claimant's mental impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘marked' limitation and ‘repeated' episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.” AR 23. She then explained her reasoning regarding paragraph B's four subparts.

         First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's activities of daily living and found her to have no restriction. The ALJ looked both to the results of Plaintiff's consultative examinations and her own self-reporting to determine that she could manage her hygiene, pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, use a checkbook, and go shopping. AR 22. Plaintiff's mother confirmed as much in the Third-Party Function Report she completed for Plaintiff on May 1, 2014. AR 22 (citing AR 287). To the extent Plaintiff had any restrictions in her daily living, the ALJ believed they derived from her physical complaints. AR 22.

         Second, the ALJ found Plaintiff to have moderate difficulties in social functioning. In support of this finding, she recounted that both Plaintiff and her mother reported that Plaintiff had no difficulty getting along with friends, family, neighbors, or others. AR 22. Nevertheless, Plaintiff also told ...

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