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Yalch v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 9, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge Presiding by Consent

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Irene Sarah Yalch's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 19), which was fully briefed on August 23, 2017. See Docs. 21, 24, 25. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 7, 9. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in failing to properly consider the opinion of treating nurse practitioner Melanie Robbins. I therefore GRANT Ms. Yalch's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is 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). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but 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).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as 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 or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Id. While the Court may not reweigh 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 ALJ'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) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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); 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) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[3] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or 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 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Yalch was born in 1985, completed high school, and worked as a cashier and a daycare teacher. AR 186, 274.[4] Ms. Yalch filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on September 11, 2012, alleging disability since February 15, 2012 due to back pain, bilateral arm and hand pain, bilateral knee spurs, bilateral arthritis in the feet, and endometriosis. AR 186-98, 273. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on November 6, 2012. Doc. 12-1 at 2; AR 119-22. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on June 28, 2013. AR 124-29. Ms. Yalch requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 132-33. On March 3, 2015, ALJ Ann Farris held a hearing. AR 30-68. ALJ Farris issued her unfavorable decision on June 23, 2015. AR 9-29.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Yalch had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since February 15, 2012, her alleged onset date. AR 14. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Yalch suffered from the following severe impairments: “status post right knee arthroscopy; fibromyalgia; depression; and posttraumatic stress disorder.” Id. The ALJ found that Ms. Yalch also had several nonsevere impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, bilateral knee osteoarthritis, status post foot surgery, endometriosis, migraines, and obesity. AR 14-15. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Yalch's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 15-17. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Yalch's RFC. AR 17-23. The ALJ found Ms. Yalch had the RFC to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), as the claimant is able to lift and carry ten pounds occasionally; is able to stand or walk up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; and is able to sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, the claimant can never climb ladders or scaffolds, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can only occasionally climb stairs, balance, and stoop. The claimant can only have occasional and superficial interactions with the general public.

AR 17-18.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Yalch was unable to perform her past relevant work as a childcare attendant or a cashier. AR 23. The ALJ found Ms. Yalch not disabled at step five because she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as document preparer, addresser, and table worker. AR 23-24. On July 9, 2015, Ms. Yalch requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR 6-7. On August 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-3. Ms. Yalch timely filed her appeal to this Court on October 21, 2016. Doc. 1.[5]

         IV. Ms. Yalch's Claims

         Ms. Yalch raises five arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) the ALJ failed to obtain a medical expert opinion about whether Ms. Yalch's fibromyalgia medically equaled a listing; (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of treating nurse practitioner Melanie Robbins; (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of treating nurse practitioner Jeanne Corns; (4) the ALJ failed to complete a function-by-function assessment of Ms. Yalch's work-related mental abilities; (5) the ALJ's step-five determination is not supported by substantial evidence. See Doc. 19. I find that the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider the opinion of treating nurse practitioner Melanie Robbins. Because I remand based on the ALJ's failure to properly analyze this opinion, I do not address the other alleged errors, which “may be affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         V. Analysis

         A. The ALJ Failed to Properly Consider the Opinion of Treating ...

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