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Pluma v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 3, 2018

SANDRA CHRISTINE PLUMA, 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 to Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 21) filed on February 5, 2018. 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. 4, 7, 12. 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

         On September 24, 2013, Ms. Sandra Pluma (Plaintiff) filed applications with the Social Security Administration for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 193-202. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2008. AR at 193, 197. Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 52-80) and on reconsideration (AR at 81-108). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her applications. AR at 138-39.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 26-51. ALJ Henry Koltys issued an unfavorable decision on July 1, 2016. AR at 15-25. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 191-92), which the council denied on July 17, 2017 (AR at 1-5). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that she 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 to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(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) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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) her 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), she is unable to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(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 her 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” Plaintiff retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given [her] 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), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [2] ALJ Koltys found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2008, the alleged onset date.” AR at 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis and allied disorders; depression; learning disorder; and drug and alcohol dependence.” AR at 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)).

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have 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 15 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). At Step Four, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ]” the ALJ did not find Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms . . . entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 18. The ALJ considered the evidence of record and found that Plaintiff

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . except that [she] can only occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally reach overhead with her right upper extremities, push/pull with foot controls using her right lower extremity, and push/pull with hand controls using her right upper extremity. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights, and pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation. She is further limited to simple, repetitive tasks.

AR at 17. ALJ Koltys found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” AR at 20 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965). Instead, Plaintiff “would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as machine operator . . ., assembler . . ., and clerk.” AR at 21 (citations omitted). The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. AR at 21.

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted) (alteration in original)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks and quotations omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice ...


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