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Montano v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 24, 2018

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 16] (“Motion”), filed on November 3, 2017. The Commissioner responded on December 13, 2017. [Doc. 17]. Plaintiff replied on January 16, 2018. [Doc. 19]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 7]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that Plaintiff fails to meet her burden as the movant to show that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not apply the correct legal standards or that her decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Motion will be denied and the Commissioner's final decision affirmed.

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[1] 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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their 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. The 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 a court may not re-weigh 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 [Commissioner]'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) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (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 omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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 (3) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2]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), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on May 28, 2013. Tr. 21. She alleged a disability-onset date of April 1, 2011. Id. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. ALJ Lillian Richter held a hearing on January 28, 2016, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 21, 46-95. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney. Id. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, her partner Luka Weinberger, and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Karen N. Provine. Id.

         The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on May 4, 2016. Tr. 40. She found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016. Tr. 23. At step one she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between her alleged onset date and her date last insured. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “systemic lupus, obesity, acne vulgaris, furunculosis versus hidradenitis supparavita, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, restless legs syndrome, chronic migraines, anxiety disorder, depression, borderline intelligence, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic back pain, degenerative disc disease with osteoarthritis, cerebrovascular accident[, ] and irritable bowel syndrome.” Tr. 23-24.

         At step three the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 24-28. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 28-38. The ALJ found that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except [Plaintiff] can lift, carry, push[, ] and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. [Plaintiff] can walk and/or stand for 6 hours and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. [Plaintiff] can occasionally finger bilaterally, can frequently handle and frequently feel bilaterally. [Plaintiff] is limited to performing simple, routine work. [Plaintiff] is limited to hearing and understanding simple information. [Plaintiff] can have occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and members of the public. [Plaintiff] is limited to a workplace with few changes in the routine work setting. [Plaintiff] could not perform work at an assembly line production pace but could meet end-of-day goals. [Plaintiff] is limited to making simple, work related decisions.

Tr. 28-29.

         At step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to return to any of her past relevant work. Tr. 38. The ALJ went on to consider Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of the VE at step five. Tr. 39-40. She found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, was not disabled. Id. Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, but ...

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