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Sanchez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 17, 2018

BONIFACIO SANCHEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THE HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Bonifacio Sanchez's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 15), filed October 30, 2017; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 17), filed December 19, 2017; and Mr. Sanchez's Reply to Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 18), filed January 12, 2018.

         Mr. Sanchez filed an application for disability insurance benefits on March 13, 2012, alleging disability beginning June 13, 2009. (Administrative Record “AR” 225). Mr. Sanchez claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to: heart problems, diabetes type II, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (AR 268). Mr. Sanchez's application was denied initially on June 14, 2012, and upon reconsideration on January 17, 2013. (AR 106). Mr. Sanchez requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on June 17, 2014, before ALJ Barry O'Melinn. (AR 55). Mr. Sanchez and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Mary Diane Weber testified at the hearing, and Mr. Sanchez was represented by non-attorney representative Roy Archuleta. (AR 57-86).

         On July 11, 2014, ALJ O'Melinn issued his decision finding that Mr. Sanchez had three severe impairments: PTSD, major depressive disorder, and hearing disorder. (AR 108). However, ALJ O'Melinn found Mr. Sanchez was able to perform his past relevant work, and, therefore, found that he was not disabled between June 13, 2009 (his alleged disability onset date) through December 31, 2010 (the date he was last insured). (AR 106-13). Mr. Sanchez then requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 185), which was granted on September 21, 2015 (AR 119). The Appeals Council found that ALJ O'Melinn's decision was inadequate for the following reasons: (1) the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination did not adequately describe the limitations that correspond to Mr. Sanchez's severe impairments; (2) the RFC did not account for the exertional and nonexertional limitations found by the state agency medical consultant; (3) the finding that Mr. Sanchez's hearing impairment did not affect his ability to work is inconsistent with the finding that the hearing impairment was severe; and (4) the finding that Mr. Sanchez was able to perform his past relevant work through the date he was last insured was not supported by the record and was inconsistent with the VE's testimony. (AR 120-21). The Appeals Council vacated ALJ O'Melinn's decision and remanded the case to an ALJ with directions to further consider Mr. Sanchez's RFC and his ability to perform his past relevant work. (AR 121-22).

         After the remand, ALJ Gerald L. Meyer held a second hearing on March 14, 2016. (AR 35). Again, Mr. Sanchez and VE Weber testified at the hearing, and Mr. Sanchez was represented by non-attorney representative Roy Archuleta. (37-54). On May 11, 2016, ALJ Meyer issued his decision finding that Mr. Sanchez had no severe impairments, so he was not disabled at any time between June 13, 2009 (his alleged disability onset date) through December 31, 2010 (the date he was last insured). (AR 22-28). Mr. Sanchez requested review of ALJ Meyer's decision by the Appeals Council, (AR 185), which was denied, (AR 1-4), making ALJ Meyer's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Mr. Sanchez, who is now represented by attorney Francesca MacDowell, argues in his Motion that ALJ Meyer erred in finding Mr. Sanchez's impairments are not severe and in his credibility finding. (Doc. 15 at 2-17). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because ALJ Meyer erred in finding that Mr. Sanchez does not have any severe impairments, the Court finds that Mr. Sanchez's Motion should be GRANTED.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or show . . . that she has done so, are grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. 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. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record 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 ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of disability insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when 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) (2015), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a) (2012). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2012).

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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 either (3) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[1] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the Commissioner must show 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. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Mr. Sanchez claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to: heart problems, diabetes type II, and PTSD. (AR 268). At step one, ALJ Meyer determined Mr. Sanchez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of June 13, 2009 through his date last insured of December 31, 2010 (“the relevant time period”). (AR 24). At step two, ALJ Meyer found that Mr. Sanchez had the following medically determinable impairments: diabetes mellitus, anxiety disorder, PTSD, osteoporosis, hearing problems, and coronary artery disease. Id. However, ALJ Meyer found that during the relevant time period Mr. Sanchez did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly ...


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