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Flores v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 24, 2018

MARIE V. FLORES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND REMAND

          KEVIN R. SWEAZEA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. 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 Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum, filed November 28, 2017 (Doc. 17), the Commissioner's response in opposition, filed December 19, 2017 (Doc. 19), and Plaintiff's reply, filed January 15, 2018 (Doc. 22). Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and should be granted.

         I. STANDARD

         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. at 1262. “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 Plaintiff'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).

         II. BACKGROUND

         On December 19, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, alleging that she had been disabled since July 1, 2013, due to fibromyalgia; facet arthritis; degenerative disc disease; and scoliosis of the upper spine. (AR 131, 146, 150). Following a hearing held on March 18, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gerald L. Meyer concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled and her claim was denied.

         In making his decision, ALJ Meyer employed the required five-step sequential disability analysis, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 1, 2013.[2] (AR 18). At step two, ALJ Meyer found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of fibromyalgia; osteoarthritis; and back problems. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (AR 19).

         ALJ Meyer next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), [3] finding that Plaintiff has the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant can occasionally lift and/or carry up to twenty pounds and frequently lift and/or carry up to ten pounds. She can stand and/or walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolding. The [claimant] cannot tolerate exposure to extreme [c]old, fumes, noxious odors, gases, chemicals, or poor ventilation.

(AR 19).

         At the time of his RFC determination, ALJ Meyer had before him evidence in the form of Plaintiff's testimony; medical records and opinion statements provided by Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Frank O'Sullivan, and Plaintiff's Nurse Practitioner (“NP”), Elaine Montano; and disability assessments conducted by non-examining state agency physicians at the initial and reconsideration levels of review.[4]

         As is relevant here, Plaintiff testified to disabling pain caused, in large part, by fibromyalgia (AR 31-44). Both of Plaintiff's medical providers completed medical source statements wherein they, too, identified a variety of functional limitations caused by Plaintiff's pain. In this regard, Dr. O'Sullivan opined that Plaintiff can stand/walk less than two hours in an eight hour workday; must periodically alternate between sitting and standing to relieve pain; and can lift/carry less than ten pounds frequently and occasionally. (AR 330). He further noted that Plaintiff has “moderate” limitations in regard to performing activities within a schedule; maintaining physical effort for two hour segments; and completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from pain or fatigue and without unreasonable rest periods. (AR 329).

         Similarly, NP Montano opined that Plaintiff can stand/walk for less than two hours in an eight hour workday; sit for less than four hours in a normal workday; can lift/carry less than ten pounds occasionally and less than five pounds frequently; and that she is limited in her abilities to push, pull, handle, and reach. (AR 340). NP Montano also identified “marked” limitations in Plaintiff's ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; perform activities within a schedule; maintain regular attendance and be punctual; maintain physical effort for long periods of time; sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; make simple work-related decisions; and complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from pain. (AR 341).

         In contrast, the agency physicians did not assess Plaintiff with severe pain related limitations and, instead, developed RFC assessments that virtually mirror ALJ Meyer's RFC determination.[5]See AR 54-55, 66-67. Predictably, then, ALJ Meyer afforded “little probative weight” to Plaintiff's testimony (AR 24), “little weight” to the statements provided by Dr. O'Sullivan and NP Montano (AR 23-24), and remarked, without assigning ...


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