United States District Court, D. New Mexico
JAMES A. POUNDERS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to
Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum
(Doc. 18), filed on October 30, 2017. The Court
further ordered supplemental briefing on two discrete issues
on May 16, 2018. See Doc. 24. 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. 10, 12,
23. Having considered the record, submissions of
counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's
motion is well-taken and will be granted.
Mr. Pounders' (Plaintiff's) second appeal of an
application he protectively filed with the Social Security
Administration on April 8, 2010, for a period of disability
and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the
Social Security Act. Administrative Record (AR) at 83.
Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 1, 2009.
See AR at 84.
Determination Services determined that Plaintiff was not
disabled both initially (AR at 83) and on reconsideration (AR
at 85). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative
Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of his application. AR at 97.
Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during
the de novo hearing. See AR at 37-82. ALJ
Ann Farris issued an unfavorable decision on June 29, 2012.
AR at 21-36. Plaintiff then submitted a Request for Review of
Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 16),
which the council denied on February 6, 2014 (AR at 2-8).
Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331
F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).
first appealed ALJ Farris's decision to this Court on
April 11, 2014. See Pounders v. Colvin, CV 14-0347
KG/WPL, Compl. (D.N.M. Apr. 11, 2014). Days later, Plaintiff
filed a second application for a period of disability and DIB
(AR at 742-48), and the state agency issued a favorable
determination on February 6, 2015, finding Plaintiff was
disabled beginning January 1, 2014. AR at 628-40. Subsequently,
on July 14, 2015, Magistrate Judge William P. Lynch filed
Proposed Findings and a Recommended Disposition
(“PF&RD”), recommending that Plaintiff's
Motion to Remand regarding his first application be granted
on the basis that, (1) ALJ Farris failed to discuss the
relevant factors in weighing a treating physician's
opinion; and (2) ALJ Farris failed “to assess
[Plaintiff's] work-related abilities on a
function-by-function basis” in determining his residual
functional capacity. See Pounders, 14-0347 KG/WPL,
PF&RD at 11-13 (D.N.M. July 14, 2015). United States
District Judge Kenneth Gonzales adopted the PF&RD and
remanded the matter for further proceedings. See
Pounders, 14-0347 KG/WPL, Order Adopting Magistrate
Judge's PF&RD (D.N.M. Aug. 24, 2015).
April 5, 2016, the Appeals Council affirmed the state
agency's determination on the second application that
Plaintiff “was disabled beginning January 1,
2014.” AR at 601-02. The council found, however, that
“the period prior to January 1, 2014 require[d] further
administrative proceedings” and remanded the matter to
an ALJ to “issue a new decision on the issue of
disability before January 1, 2014.” AR at 601-02.
remand by Judge Gonzales of this Court, ALJ Farris held a
second de novo hearing regarding Plaintiff's
first application on September 1, 2016. AR at 514-47. The ALJ
issued a partially favorable decision on December 30, 2016.
AR at 486-513. Using the five-step sequential evaluation
process, ALJ Farris found that Plaintiff was disabled
beginning on July 1, 2013, through December 31, 2013. AR at
486-513. There is no evidence that Plaintiff asked the
Appeals Council to review ALJ Farris's decision, so the
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner 60 days after December 30, 2016. Plaintiff then
filed a suit in this Court seeking remand for another
rehearing. Doc. 1.
Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings
claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he
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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
The Commissioner must use a sequential evaluation process
(“SEP”) to determine eligibility for benefits. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v.
Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).
claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the
process to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial
gainful activity”; (2) he 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) his impairment(s) meet or equal
one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt.
404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's
residual functional capacity (RFC), he is unable to perform
his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart,
399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).
“RFC is a multidimensional description of the
work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of
[his] medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin,
Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29,
2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §
12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant
meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of
disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the
Commissioner at step five to show that” the claimant
retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national
economy, given his age, education, and work
experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing
Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th
Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
One of the process,  ALJ Farris found that Plaintiff “has
not engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 1,
2009, through December 13, 2013.” AR at 493 (citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576).
Two, the ALJ concluded that since January 1, 2009, Plaintiff
“has had the following severe impairments: degenerative
disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, status-post
lumbar fusion L4-S1, moderate arthrosis of the synovial
joints, and obesity. Beginning on the established onset date
of disability, July 1, 2013, ” Plaintiff had the
aforementioned severe impairments, as well as
“arthritis of the hands.” AR at 494 (citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). ALJ Farris also noted the
following nonsevere impairments: sleep apnea; mesenteric
fibrosis; depression; and degenerative joint disease of the
knees, shoulders, and hands (the ALJ found, however, that the
degenerative joint disease of the hands became severe as of
July 1, 2013). AR at 494.
Three, the ALJ found that for the relevant time period,
Plaintiff “has not had an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 497 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). At Step Four,
the ALJ considered the evidence of record and found
that prior to July 1, 2013, the date [Plaintiff] became
disabled, [he] had the [RFC] to perform light work as defined
in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except [Plaintiff] was
limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs,
balancing, and stooping. He could never climb ladders, ropes,
and scaffolds, kneel, crouch, or crawl. He was limited to
frequent reaching. He ...