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Meese v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 23, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Robert Lewis Meese seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that he is not entitled to disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383c. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered Mr. Meese's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum, filed October 16, 2017 (Doc. 22), the Commissioner's response in opposition, filed November 16, 2017 (Doc. 24), and Mr. Meese's reply, filed November 24, 2017 (Doc. 25), along with the remainder of the record. Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Mr. Meese's motion is well taken and should be granted.


         On October 17, 2012 Mr. Meese filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, alleging that he had been disabled since September 1, 2012, due to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a history of traumatic brain injury with cognitive impairment. (AR 275). On March 7, 2013, it was determined that Mr. Meese was not disabled and his claim was denied. (AR 115-126). The denial was upheld on reconsideration on August 6, 2013 (AR 127-140), and a subsequent hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), held on July 2, 2015, again ended in a denial. (AR 12-21). The ALJ's decision became final when, on December 21, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Meese's request for review. (AR 1-5); see Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Appeals Council denies a request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5).


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court must examine the record as a whole, “including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. “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.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Mr. Meese's claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).


         I. Disability Framework.

         “Disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, is the inability “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act further adds that for the purposes of § 423(d)(1)(A):

an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

§ 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140(1987). At the first four steps of the process, the claimant must show that he or she: (1) is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) 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) has impairment(s) that either meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) is unable to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) (i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If a claimant does not establish an impairment that meets or equals a Listing, but proves an inability to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[1], age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         II. The ALJ's Determination.

         As detailed in the ALJ's written decision, the ALJ followed the sequential analysis set forth above, first finding that Mr. Meese had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of September 1, 2012. (AR 14). At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Meese had the following severe medically determinable impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depressive disorder, borderline intellectual functioning and organic brain syndrome.[2] (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Mr. Meese's impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (AR. 15). Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, at step four the ALJ proceeded to assess Mr. Meese's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (AR. 16-19). The ALJ reasoned:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following limitations: He is able to understand, remember and carry out only simple instructions including commensurate work-related decisions. He may have occasional interaction with the public, deal with routine changes in work setting and maintain concentration, persistence and pace for two hours at a time with normal breaks.

(AR 16).

         At step five, the ALJ determined that Mr. Meese was capable of performing past relevant work as a hand packager and a warehouse worker. (AR. 20) The ALJ also made the alternative finding that other jobs exist in the national economy that Mr. Meese is able to perform, including harvest worker, janitor and meat trimmer. (AR. 20-21) The ALJ then concluded that Mr. Meese has not been under a disability since October 17, 2012 when Mr. Meese filed his application for SSI benefits. (AR. 21)

         III. Mr. Meese's Challenges to the ...

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