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Tilla v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 8, 2018

SHANNETTE L. TILLA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          KIRTAN KHALSA United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 13) filed June 2, 2017, in support of Plaintiff Shannette L. Tilla's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for Title II disability insurance benefits. On August 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse and Remand For A Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 18.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on September 29, 2017 (Doc. 20), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on October 24, 2017. (Doc. 24.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is well taken and is GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Shannette Tilla (“Ms. Tilla”) alleges that she became disabled on December 1, 2009, at the age of thirty-seven because of a tumor in her spine, back pain, hernia, severe nerve damage, and depression. (Tr. 42, 278, 283.[2]) Ms. Tilla completed three years of college in 1999, and worked as a bartender, disability home caretaker, home health caretaker/supervisor, and a casework supervisor for the State of New Mexico. (Tr. 48-51, 284, 291, 310.) Ms. Tilla reported she stopped working on December 22, 2004, due to her medical conditions. (Tr. 283.)

         On February 11, 2013, Ms. Tilla protectively filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Tr. 251-54, 279.) She also protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 255-60.) Ms. Tilla's applications were initially denied on June 20, 2013. (Tr. 100, 101-116, 117, 118-130, 163-66, 167-70.) They were denied again at reconsideration on September 4, 2013. (Tr. 131, 132-45, 147, 148-61, 176-79, 180-83.) On November 5, 2013, Ms. Tilla requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 184-85.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on July 16, 2015. (Tr. 35-94.) Ms. Tilla appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Michael Armstrong. (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Tilla (Tr. 44-50, 51-52, 53-78), from Ms. Tilla's husband, David Lee (Tr. 79-88), and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Sandra Trost (Tr. 50-51, 52-53, 88-93). On September 10, 2015, ALJ Eris Weiss issued a partially favorable decision, finding that Ms. Tilla was not disabled at any time through December 31, 2009, her date last insured, but that she became disabled on October 30, 2013. (Tr. 13-29.) On November 18, 2016, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Ms. Tilla's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-3.) On January 18, 2017, Ms. Tilla timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”[3] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listing described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294, n. 5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01. In making these determinations, the Court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). A decision is based on substantial evidence where it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is ...


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