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Mares ex rel. Mares v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 9, 2018

RAMONA VICTORIA MARES, EX REL. HER DECEASED FATHER, JOHN MARES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND REMAND

          KEVIN R SWEAZEA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that her deceased father (“Mr. Mares”) was not entitled to disability benefits, prior to his death, under Title II or Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, §§ 1381-1383f. 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 or for Immediate Payment of Benefits (Doc. 21), filed October 31, 2017, the Commissioner's response in opposition (Doc. 25), filed January 4, 2018, and Plaintiff's reply (Doc 26), filed February 16, 2018. Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and should be denied.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On October 15, 2013, Mr. Mares filed applications for Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI supplemental security income (“SSI”). (AR 220, 226). On February 21, 2014, it was determined that Mr. Mares was not disabled and his claim was denied. (AR 120, 124). This determination was affirmed on July 22, 2014 (AR 130, 133), and a subsequent hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), held on April 2, 2015, again ended in a denial. (AR 15-26). The ALJ's decision became final when, on March 6, 2017, 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).

         Unfortunately, Mr. Mares died on May 11, 2015, and thus only his claim for Title II disability insurance benefits survives the appeal at bar.[1]

         II. 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 162. “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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Disability Framework

         “Disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, is the inability “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act further adds that for the purposes of § 423(d)(1)(A):

an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         When evaluating a disability claim under this standard, the ALJ employs a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In the first four steps, the claimant must prove that he or she (1) is not engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets the twelve month duration requirement; (3) has an impairment, or combination thereof, that meets or equals a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1; and (4) is unable to engage in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iv). If the disability claim survives step four, the burden shifts to the ALJ to prove, at step five, that the claimant is able to adjust to other jobs presently available in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). See also Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010).

         Steps four and five are based on an assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) which gauges “what the claimant is still functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments.” Williams v. ...


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