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Romanczuk v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 16, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 22) filed on August 21, 2017. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 3, 10, 11. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Daniel Lee Romanczuk (Plaintiff), born on December 16, 1990, was initially found eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on April 1, 1999, due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and affective/mood disorders pursuant to Childhood Listing 112.02. See Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 30, 56, 76. The Social Security Administration (SSA) reviewed Plaintiff's benefits when he reached age 18 in June 2010, and found that he no longer qualified for SSI. AR at 30, 68-70. On June 23, 2010, Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the decision to terminate his benefits. AR at 72. An SSA Disability Hearing Officer reviewed Plaintiff's file and denied his request for reconsideration on April 11, 2011 (AR at 73-85), finding that “as an adult, [Plaintiff's] mental impairments are severe, but should not prevent him from performing at least simple, unskilled work related activities on a sustained basis.” AR at 80.

         Plaintiff filed a Request for Reconsideration of the Hearing Officer's decision and sought a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). AR at 86, 90. On January 24, 2013, ALJ Paula Fow filed an Order of Dismissal, dismissing Plaintiff's request for a hearing due to numerous failed attempts to contact Plaintiff and his failure to appear at the scheduled hearing. AR at 514-15. Consequently, the April 11, 2011 decision remained in effect. AR at 515.

         Plaintiff appealed ALJ Fow's dismissal and sought another hearing. AR at 569. On June 8, 2015, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and vacated ALJ Fow's decision because “[t]he electronic file contain[ed] evidence not located in the paper file” that ALJ Fow did not consider (AR at 574). See AR at 572-77. Plaintiff sought another oral hearing, which ALJ Barry O'Melinn conducted on February 12, 2016. AR at 1106-25. Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 1106-25.

         ALJ O'Melinn issued an unfavorable decision on April 12, 2016. AR at 27-46. On April 21, 2016, Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council. See AR at 21. On December 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR at 13-16. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he 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. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a sequential five-step evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), he is unable to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of [his] medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that” Plaintiff retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given his age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, ALJ O'Melinn found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity[, ]” although the ALJ also noted certain inconsistencies in Plaintiff's testimony and the evidence regarding whether he had worked in the past. AR at 33 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.971-976.

         At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that “[s]ince June 1, 2010 and prior to attaining age 22, [Plaintiff] had the following severe impairments: organic mental and affective disorders; mild intellectual disability, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder; seizure disorder; and back disorder.” AR at 33 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's allegations of “legal blindness and insomnia are not medically determinable impairments, as there were no medical signs or laboratory findings to substantiate the existence of such.” AR at 34.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that “[s]ince June 1, 2010 and prior to attaining age 22, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 34 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926. In making his determination, ALJ O'Melinn considered listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 2.02, 2.03, and 2.04 (vision problems), 11.02 (convulsive epilepsy), 11.03 (non-convulsive epilepsy), and listings in 12.02, 12.04, and 12.05 (mental impairments). AR at 34.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ]” the ALJ did not find Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms [to be] entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 37. The ALJ considered the evidence of record, including medical records from 2009 through 2016 and several mental health evaluations, a statement from Plaintiff's mother, and Plaintiff's testimony at his 2016 hearing. AR at 38-44.

         ALJ O'Melinn found that Plaintiff “has no past relevant work.” AR at 44 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.965. Ultimately, the ALJ found that

since June 1, 2010 prior to attaining age 22, [Plaintiff] had the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except that he is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; and cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He is limited to frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, noise, and airborne irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poorly vented areas. He must avoid all exposure to operational control of moving machinery, unprotected heights, and hazardous machinery. He can understand, remember, and carry out simple work instructions, make commensurate work related decisions, and respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and work situations. He can deal with routine changes in work setting and maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to and including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout a normal workday. He would be most suitable for jobs working primarily with things and not people.

AR at 36-37.

         The ALJ stated that he “asked [a VE] whether jobs exist in the national economy for an individual with [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC] prior to attaining age 22.” AR at 45. “The [VE] testified that given all of these factors the individual would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as:” (1) cleaner polisher, (2) hotel cleaner, and (3) checker 1. AR at 45. The ALJ found that the VE's “testimony is consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.” AR at 45. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . any time since June 1, 2010 and prior to December 15, 2012, the date he attained age 22.” AR at 45 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(5), 404.1520(g)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “disability ended on June 1, 2010, and [Plaintiff] has not become disabled again since that date.” AR at 45 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.987(e), 416.920(g)).

         III. ...

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