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Castillo-Rael v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 31, 2018

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


          Laura Fashing, United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Deidre Simona Castillo-Rael's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), which was fully briefed on September 7, 2017. See Docs. 19, 20, 21. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 3, 5, 6. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to properly weigh the opinions of the non-examining state agency psychologists. I therefore GRANT Ms. Castillo-Rael'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. Castillo-Rael was born in 1983, completed the eleventh grade, and later completed an EMT program. AR 36, 207, 258.[4] She had worked loading freight on airplanes, as a loss prevention associate, and as a personal trainer. AR 46, 258. Ms. Castillo-Rael filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on June 18, 2013, alleging disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep apnea. AR 207- 20, 257. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on August 13, 2013. AR 110-13. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on November 21, 2013. AR 118-24. Ms. Castillo-Rael requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 125-26. On October 5, 2015, ALJ Eric Weiss held a hearing. AR 28-51. ALJ Weiss issued his unfavorable decision on December 11, 2015. AR 9-27.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Castillo-Rael had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since the earlier of her alleged onset dates.[5] AR 14. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Castillo-Rael suffered from the severe impairments of major depressive disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Castillo-Rael's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 15-16. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Castillo-Rael's RFC. AR 16-20. The ALJ found Ms. Castillo-Rael had the RFC to

perform a full range of exertional work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: Able to perform the full range of exertional work as defined by the regulations. She is able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and make commensurate work related decisions, but not a production rate pace, in a work setting with few changes. She is able to occasionally interact with supervisors, co-workers and the public. She is able to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for 2 hrs at a time during the workday with normal breaks.

AR 16-17.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Castillo-Rael was unable to perform her past relevant work as an aircraft loader, a sales clerk, a personal trainer, or a surveillance systems monitor. AR 20. The ALJ found Ms. Castillo-Rael not disabled at step five because she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as addresser, flat work tier, [6] and cleaner in an industrial setting. AR 21. On January 8, 2016, Ms. Castillo-Rael requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR 7-8. On November 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-6. Ms. Castillo-Rael timely filed her appeal to this Court on January 9, 2017. Doc. 1.[7]

         IV. Ms. ...

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