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Standifer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 19, 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 Tina Louise Standifer's Motion to Reverse or Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supportive Memorandum (Doc. 18), which was fully briefed on September 21, 2017. Docs. 20, 21, 24. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 10, 12. Having meticulously reviewed the record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal standards and her decision is supported by substantial evidence. The Court therefore DENIES Ms. Standifer's motion and dismisses this case with prejudice.

         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).

         “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. We may not displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.

Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations and citations omitted) (brackets in original).

         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. Standifer is a 48-year-old woman who is a high-school graduate. AR 87, 243.[4] Ms. Standifer spent several years working at the “Base Exchange, ” first as a cashier, but she eventually was promoted to area sales manager. AR 52, 88, 280. In 2013, she was caught stealing from her employer. AR 52-53. After being fired from her position, Ms. Standifer worked in deli service at Sandia Casino. AR 56-57. Between 2012 and 2014, she was a home healthcare worker for her mother. AR 70-71. Ms. Standifer filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on March 6, 2015, and an application for supplemental social income (“SSI”) on March 16, 2015, [5] alleging disability since September 2, 2014, due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), major depression, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, a back injury, acid reflux, gastritis, and factor five deficiency. AR 243-50, 278. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially and on reconsideration. AR 97-186. Ms. Standifer requested a hearing on October 29, 2015. AR 187. On April 21, 2016, ALJ Lillian Richter held a hearing, at which Ms. Standifer and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. AR 45- 96. ALJ Richter issued her unfavorable decision on August 2, 2016. AR 18-44.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Standifer was insured for disability benefits through December 31, 2019. AR 23. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Standifer had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since December 23, 2014, the alleged onset date.[6] Id. Because Ms. Standifer had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. AR 23. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Standifer had the following severe impairments: “morbid obesity; lumbar spondylosis with facet based arthropathy; osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees; obstructive sleep apnea; borderline traits; depression; and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” AR 23. The ALJ also found at step two that Ms. Standifer's factor V Leiden deficiency, symmetric sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus, rhinosinusitis, plantar fasciitis, and gastrointestinal reflux disorder (“GERD”) were all non-severe impairments. AR 24-25. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Standifer's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 25-27. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Standifer's RFC. AR 27-37. The ALJ found that:

[Claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), as follows:
. The claimant is able to lift and/or carry and push and/or pull 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently;
. The claimant can stand and/or walk for two hours and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday;
. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl;
. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
. The claimant can never balance;
. The claimant should avoid exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, extreme humidity, vibration, unprotected heights, and moving mechanical parts:
. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine work;
. The claimant is limited to occasional contact with supervisors and coworkers and incidental contact with the public;
. The claimant cannot work in close proximity to others (in order to avoid distractions); and
. The claimant is limited to a workplace with few changes in the routine work setting and with a moderate noise level.

AR 27-28.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Standifer was unable to perform her past relevant work as a human resource clerk, cashier, reorder clerk, deli service worker, or home health worker. AR 37. The ALJ found, however, that Ms. Standifer was not disabled at step five. Relying on the VE testimony, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Standifer still could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as buckler and lacer, dowel inspector, and circuit board screener. AR 38-39. Ms. Standifer requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on October 28, 2016. AR 1-5, 14-17. Ms. Standifer timely filed her appeal to this Court on December 15, 2016.[7] Doc. 1.

         IV. Ms. Standifer's Claims

         Although her brief is not a model of clarity, Ms. Standifer appears to raise two main arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) that the ALJ erred in rejecting her treating physician's opinions when determining whether she met the Listings at step three; and (2) that “the ALJ erred in accepting the VE's testimony as sufficient to demonstrate capacity to perform the specific jobs identified or to establish [that] sufficient numbers of such jobs exist in the national economy.” Doc. 18 at 3. Ms. Standifer also presents a number of sub-issues and arguments, many of which are poorly developed. The Court will consider and discuss only the contentions that have been adequately briefed. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing Chambers v. Barnhart, 389 F.3d 1139, 1142 (10th Cir.2004) (“The scope of our review . . . is limited to the issues the claimant . . . adequately presents on appeal.”).

         V. Discussion

         A. The ALJ's Step Two Findings

         Ms. Standifer contends that she “specifically challenges the findings [that] her plantar [fasciitis] of both feet is non severe.” Doc. 18 at 19. Ms. ...

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