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Pounders v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 22, 2018

JAMES A. POUNDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS 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.

         I. Procedural History

         This is 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[1] (AR) at 83. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 1, 2009. See AR at 84.

         Disability 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).

         Plaintiff 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.[2] 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).

         On 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.

         Following 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.

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         A 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).

         The 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).

         At Step One of the process, [3] 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).

         At Step 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.

         At Step 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. ยง] 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 ...

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