Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Ortega v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 26, 2018

RONALD POLANCO ORTEGA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Ronald Polanco Ortega's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 26), which was fully briefed August 16, 2017. Docs 27, 28, 29. Having carefully reviewed the parties' submissions, the administrative record, and the relevant law, I find that the motion is well taken in part and will GRANT IT IN PART and DENY IT IN PART, and remand this case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard that courts apply in reviewing the Commissioner's decision is the same regardless of whether the issue is termination of benefits or the initial denial of benefits. See Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). The Court must determine whether the Commissioner's final decision[2] 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). “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 and brackets omitted).

         In the typical case, the Court's decision is based on a “meticulous” review of the entire record, where it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). This case, however, can be resolved on an error of law. Therefore, all portions of the record that bear on the legal arguments raised by Mr. Ortega have been read and carefully considered, but I did not review every page of the medical documents in detail, as is usually the case. See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005) (“[W]e meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that my undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.”) (emphasis added). In this case, because “the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir.1993) (emphasis added).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         With an initial disability determination, the Court applies a five step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520[3]; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). The Social Security Act (the Act) provides that the Commissioner shall review disability cases to determine continuing eligibility. 42 U.S.C. § 421(i). The Commissioner may terminate benefits of an individual previously determined to be disabled if she finds that the physical or mental impairments which formed the basis for award of benefits have ceased, do not exist, or are no longer disabling. 42 U.S.C. § 423(f).

         In accordance with the Act, the regulations provide for termination of benefits if there has been medical improvement in the recipient's impairment(s) that relates to the recipient's ability to work, and if the recipient is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity. 20 U.S.C. § 404.1594(a). The regulations define “medical improvement” as:

any decrease in the medical severity of your impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that you were disabled or continued to be disabled. A determination that there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based on changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings associated with your impairment(s).

20 U.S.C. § 404.1594(b)(1).

         In contrast to the five-step initial evaluation process for initial disability evaluations, the Commissioner has developed an eight-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant's disability continues or ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1-8); see also Hayden v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 986, 988 (10th Cir. 2004). Step one requires the ALJ to determine if the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. Id. Step two requires the ALJ to determine if the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a Listing.[4]Id. Step three requires a determination that there has been medical improvement as shown by a decrease in medical severity. Id. At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the medical improvement is related to the ability to do work. Id. At step five, if there has been no medical improvement, or if the improvement is not related to the ability to work, the ALJ must determine if an exception applies. Id. At step six, if medical improvement is shown to be related to the ability to do work (or if an exception applies), the ALJ must determine if all current impairments are severe, including a consideration of all current impairments and the impact of the combination of these impairments. Id. If one or more impairments are considered severe, at step seven, the ALJ must assess the claimant's ability to perform substantial gainful activity and whether the claimant could perform past relevant work. Id. At step eight, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ must determine if there is other work the claimant could perform. Id. For each of the steps in a termination-of-benefits review, the burden is on the Commissioner. See Hayden, 374 F.3d at 991.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Mr. Otero is a 47-year-old man with a high school education who has a history of working as a robot engineer, a meter reader, and performing meter repair. AR 20, 733-38.[5] In a decision dated March 8, 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) found Mr. Ortega disabled as of December 7, 2008, due to a combination of mental and physical limitations. AR 31-40. The SSA conducted a continuing disability review and determined that as of March 25, 2014, Mr. Ortega was no longer disabled. AR 42-49. Mr. Ortega requested a hearing, and Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Eric Weiss conducted a hearing on April 26, 2016. AR 56, 729-55. The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on May 25, 2016. AR 10-22.

         In his decision, the ALJ found that the medical evidence established that as of March 25, 2014, Mr. Ortega had the severe impairments of atrial fibrillation, ventricular tachycardia, premature ventricular contractions, lumbar degenerative joint disease, asthma, dysthymia, depression, and sleep apnea. AR 16. The ALJ further found that Mr. Ortega's obesity, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome, and alcohol disorder were non-severe. Id. The ALJ then proceeded through the eight-step sequential evaluation process.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Otero had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date his disability ended on March 25, 2014. AR 16. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Ortega did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 17. At step three, the ALJ found that as of March 25, 2014, Mr. Ortega had shown medical improvement. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that the medical improvement was related to Mr. Ortega's ability to do work, and he therefore continued to step six.[6] Id. At step six, the ALJ found that Mr. Ortega continued to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ assessed Mr. Ortega's RFC and found:

Based on the impairments present as of March 25, 2014, [Mr. Ortega] had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work (lift 10 pounds occasionally, stand/walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. [Mr. Otero] can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl and climb ramps or stairs. He can frequently balance but must avoid more than occasional exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous moving machinery, excessive vibration, and extreme cold. The claimant is able to understand, remember and carry out detailed but not complex instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions and adjust to routine changes in [the] work ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.