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Alford 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 a series of motions. Mr. James Alford (Plaintiff), who is proceeding pro se, filed this action to appeal the Appeals Council's decision granting his 2015 applications for disability insurance benefits (DBI) and supplemental security income (SSI). See Doc. 57. Plaintiff has also moved for other miscellaneous relief. See Docs. 57; 59; 60; 71; 72. The Commissioner opposes Plaintiff's requests. See Doc. 65.

         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. 4, 11, 12. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny Plaintiff's motions and dismiss this action with prejudice.

         I. Background

         In 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for DBI under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), and for SSI under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 104-18. In both of his applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2015. AR at 104, 112. The State agency approved the SSI claim with an established onset date of September 30, 2015, but denied the DBI claim on the basis that there was no evidence Plaintiff became disabled before his date last insured, which was then listed as March 31, 2014. AR at 8.

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of this decision. See AR at 64-69. At some point, the Agency received evidence that Plaintiff's date last insured was March 31, 2017, rather than 2014. AR at 8. Plaintiff then received a fully favorable decision, as the Appeals Council allowed Plaintiff's DBI claim in addition to his SSI claim and found that Plaintiff “is disabled under the framework of Medical-Vocational Rule 202.06, beginning on June 1, 2015 . . . .” AR at 9.

         Plaintiff then filed his Motion to Reverse and/or Remand the Commissioner's decision, and asks the Court to amend his disability onset date and to increase the amount of his benefits award. See Doc. 57.

         II. Applicable Law

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted)).

         The Court construes the pro se Plaintiff's pleadings liberally and holds him “to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Garrett v. Selby Connor Maddux & Janer, 425 F.3d 836, 840 (10th Cir. 2005) (citing Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991) (internal citation omitted)). The Court may not, however, “serv[e] as the litigant's attorney in constructing arguments and searching the record.” Id. (citation omitted).

         III. The Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand.

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of his favorable decision and argues that the Appeals Council erred in accepting the disability onset date he alleged in his applications. See Doc. 57 at 3. Plaintiff also asks the Court to increase the amount of his award, but he does not allege that the Commissioner erred in calculating his award. See Id. The Commissioner argues that the Court should affirm the Commissioner's decision both because the Commissioner used the onset date Plaintiff alleged in his applications, and because the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Doc. 65 at 2-9. Moreover, the Commissioner argues Plaintiff would not be entitled to an earlier onset date, as he engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) from 2013 through 2015. Id. at 6-7. The Court finds it appropriate to deny Plaintiff's motion and dismiss this matter on two grounds: first, Plaintiff's claim fails on the merits; second, Plaintiff does not have statutory standing to bring this appeal.

         A. The Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff asks the Court to amend his disability onset date. “Social Security Ruling 83-20 defines the onset date as ‘the first day an individual is disabled as defined in the Act and the regulations.'” Ray v. Apfel, No. 99-7081, 2000 WL 342493, at *1-2 (10th Cir. Apr. 3, 2000) (quoting Reid v. Chater, 71 F.3d 372, 373 (10th Cir.1995) (quoting SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *3 (Jan. 1, 1983))). “Factors relevant to the determination are the claimant's allegation of an onset date, his work history, and the medical evidence, with medical evidence being the primary element in determining onset date.” Id. at *2 (quoting Reid, 71 F.3d at 373). “[T]he date alleged by the individual should be used if it is consistent with all the evidence available. . . . However, the established onset date must be fixed based on the facts and can never be inconsistent with the medical evidence of record.” Id. (quoting SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *3).

         Here, it was Plaintiff himself who originally alleged the June 1, 2015 disability onset date in his 2015 applications. See AR at 104, 112. Plaintiff does not argue that his choice to list June 1, 2015, as his disability onset date in his DBI and SSI applications was the result of confusion, coercion, or typographical error. Only now, after a fully favorable decision, does ...

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