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Reynolds v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 3, 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 Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 23] (“Motion”), filed on December 1, 2017. The Commissioner responded on January 19, 2018. [Doc. 26]. Plaintiff replied on February 16, 2018. [Doc. 27]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 24]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standards in weighing the opinions of Drs. Koewler, Chiang, and Robinowitz. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence four).

         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 April 16, 2013. See Tr. 391. She alleged a disability-onset date of August 1, 2008. Tr. 306. Her claim was denied by an ALJ, remanded by this Court, and denied a second time by an ALJ. See Tr. 306-22. ALJ Ann Farris held the second administrative hearing by video conference on January 25, 2017, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 306-22, 329-59. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney from Farmington, New Mexico. Id. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Beth Drury. Id.

         The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on March 8, 2017. Tr. 322. Initially, she found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2012. Tr. 308. At step one, she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Id. Because Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least 12 months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. There, she found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis in the knees, a mood disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), borderline personality disorder, learning disorder, polysubstance abuse, and obesity. Id. However, the ALJ specifically found that Plaintiff had no medically determinable mental impairment prior to her date last insured. Tr. 309. She further found that Plaintiff's hypertension and gastroesophageal reflux disease were not severe and that her bilateral hand pain was not a medically determinable impairment. Id.

         At step three the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 309-11. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 312-20. The ALJ found that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she cannot kneel, crouch, or crawl. She is limited to simple, routine tasks with reasoning level 1, should have no interaction with the general public[] and only occasional, superficial interaction with co-workers.

Tr. 312.

         At step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Tr. 320. The ALJ went on to consider Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of the VE at step five. Tr. 320-21. She found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, was not disabled. Id. Plaintiff did not file exceptions to the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction within 60 days. Therefore, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.984(d), the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed directly to this Court on June 6, 2017. [Doc. 1].


         The ALJ failed to apply the correct legal standards in evaluating the opinions of Dr. Koewler, Dr. Chiang, and Dr. Robinowitz. The ALJ failed to include the doctors' assessed limitations in the RFC and she also failed to explain the omissions. Accordingly, remand is warranted to revisit their opinions. Plaintiff's request for an immediate award of benefits will be denied because further fact-finding is needed. The Court declines to pass on Plaintiff's other alleged errors at this time.

         The ALJ erred in rejecting portions of the source opinions and ...

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