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Sandoval v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 16, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Jerry H. Ritter U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Frank L. Sandoval's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits or in the Alternative for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum, filed December 13, 2017. Doc. 20. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the undersigned to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, including the entry of final judgment. Docs. 9, 11, 15. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), the Court denies Mr. Sandoval's Motion for the reasons set forth below.


         This Court's institutional role is to ensure that substantial evidence supports an administrative law judge's (“ALJ's”) decision on the merits of a Social Security disability claim and that the correct legal standards were applied. This means that the Court can neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the ALJ's where there exists more than a mere scintilla of evidence supporting the decision. And, in the end, the Court must be guided by principles of fairness and common sense, which render some errors by an ALJ harmless when considered in the aggregate. This is one of those cases.

         Mr. Sandoval claims that the ALJ erred in weighing and applying two medical opinions. The Court agrees that the ALJ's reasoning for rejecting one of these opinions is unsupported; however, ultimately, this error is harmless because the ALJ accounted for the opinion's restrictions in formulating Mr. Sandoval's RFC. Mr. Sandoval also claims that the ALJ's assessment of his credibility was flawed. The Court agrees that the ALJ's discussion could have been clearer; however, ultimately, the ALJ's findings are entitled to deference and are supported by substantial evidence. Finally, Mr. Sandoval claims that his case must be remanded for assessment of evidence related to his hearing impairment, which was all but ignored by the ALJ and Appeals Council. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in omitting discussion of Mr. Sandoval's audiological impairments when formulating his RFC; however, ultimately, the ALJ's omission was harmless because the ALJ identified a job Mr. Sandoval can perform that does not require any hearing. For these reasons, more fully explained below, the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision denying benefits in this case.


         Mr. Sandoval filed an application with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on April 13, 2015. AR at 287-88. He alleged a disability onset date of April 10, 2015 due to “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Acquired Psychiatric Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Hypertension, Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Artery Disease, Degenerative Left Knee, Hearing Loss, Right Knee anterior cruciate ligament tear, and Memory loss.” AR at 213-14.

         The Administration denied Mr. Sandoval's claims initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a de novo hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR at 212-69. ALJ Lillian Richter held an evidentiary hearing on August 11, 2016. AR at 155-211. Pertinent here, Mr. Sandoval's attorney represented at the hearing that, although he has physical impairments, “[w]hat is keeping him from working is his PTSD and his depression.” AR at 162. In fact, all of Mr. Sandoval and his wife's testimony at the hearing were focused on his mental impairments. AR at 162-201. And in questioning the Vocational Expert, Mr. Sandoval's attorney focused on the effects his mental impairments would have on his ability to interact with the public and supervisors. AR at 206-09.

         On January 27, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Mr. Sandoval has not been under a disability from his alleged onset date through the date of her decision. AR at 132-154. Mr. Sandoval filed a “Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order” on February 15, 2017. AR at 284-85. Mr. Sandoval also submitted additional medical records for the Appeals Council's review on April 7, 2017. AR at 6-129. Ultimately, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Sandoval's request for review on May 4, 2017. AR at 1-5. Pertinent here, it found that the evidence Mr. Sandoval submitted after the ALJ hearing did “not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.” AR at 2. Accordingly, the Appeals Council “did not consider and exhibit this evidence.” Id. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[1]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Sandoval has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. AR at 137. At Step Two, she determined that Mr. Sandoval has the severe impairments of “diabetes mellitus; polyneuropathy; coronary artery disease; obesity; plantar fasciitis of the left foot; a major depressive disorder; and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[.]” AR at 137. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Sandoval's impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 138-41.

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities a plaintiff retains in spite of his medical impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sandoval retains the RFC to “perform a limited range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) as follows:”

• The claimant is able to lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently and push and/or pull within these weight limitations;
• The claimant is able to sit and stand and/or walk six hours total out of an eight-hour workday;
• The claimant can frequently climb ramps and stairs and occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl;
• The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
• The claimant should avoid exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants;
• The claimant can frequently handle and finger bilaterally;
• The claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work and could not perform work in tandem with other employees and could not perform work at an assembly line production pace;
• The claimant can have occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers and incidental interaction with the public; and
• The claimant is limited to making simple, work-related decisions in a workplace with few changes in the routine work setting.

AR at 141.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sandoval is unable to perform his past relevant work as a service manager and sales representative. AR at 148. However, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Sandoval can perform despite his limitations. AR at 149. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sandoval retains the functional capacity to work as a dining room attendant, kitchen helper, or a blending tank tender helper. AR at 149. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sandoval is not disabled and denied benefits. AR at 150.

         III) ...

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