United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Fashing United States Magistrate Judge
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Manuel
Maldonado's Motion to Reverse or Remand the
Administrative Decision with supporting memorandum (Docs. 21,
22), which was fully briefed on October 19, 2017.
See Docs. 24, 26, 27. The parties consented to my
entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 6, 11, 12. Having
meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully
advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) failed to properly apply the
treating physician rule to Dr. Ursula Roblero's opinion.
I therefore GRANT Mr. Maldonado's motion and remand this
case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent
with this opinion.
Standard of Review
standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the
Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial
evidence and whether the correct legal standards were
applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th
Cir. 2008). If substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards
were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands, and the
plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v.
Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004).
“The 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.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d
1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and
brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the
entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.
Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir.
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. A decision “is not
based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other
evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of
evidence supporting it.” Id. While the Court
may not reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its
examination of the record as a whole must include
“anything that may undercut or detract from the
ALJ's findings in order to determine if the
substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v.
Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005).
“‘The possibility of drawing two inconsistent
conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the] findings
from being supported by substantial evidence.'”
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200
(10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish
that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation
process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not
engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2)
the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one
of the Listings of presumptively disabling impairments;
or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61.
If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets
or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to
perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the
burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to
show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the
national economy, considering the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and
work experience. Id.
Background and Procedural History
Maldonado was born in 1955, completed a GED, and spent 35
years in prison. AR 47, 60, 196. After his release from
prison, he worked doing apartment maintenance, as an
apartment groundskeeper, and doing construction cleanup. AR
74-77, 220. Mr. Maldonado filed an application for disability
insurance benefits on July 11, 2013-alleging disability since
March 21, 2013 due to compression and arthritis in his back
and hips, hepatitis C, and cirrhosis. AR 196-97, 219. The
Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his
claim initially on December 3, 2013. AR 119-22. The SSA
denied his claims on reconsideration on March 27, 2014. AR
126-30. Mr. Maldonado requested a hearing before an ALJ.
See AR 132. On December 31, 2015, ALJ Eric Weiss
held a hearing. AR 37-85. ALJ Weiss issued his unfavorable
decision on February 3, 2016. AR 16-36.
one, the ALJ found that Mr. Maldonado had not engaged in
substantial, gainful activity since March 31, 2013, his
alleged onset date, through June 30, 2015, his date last
insured. AR 21. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Maldonado
suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative
changes to the lumbar spine and bilateral hips, Grade I
anterolisthesis of L-4, osteoarthritis, and mood disorder
not otherwise specified. Id. The ALJ found the
following impairments were nonsevere: cirrhosis of the liver,
hepatitis C, swelling of lower extremity, gynecomastia,
opioid dependence, and alcohol abuse. AR 22. At step three,
the ALJ found that none of Mr. Maldonado's impairments,
alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing.
AR 22-24. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments
met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Mr. Maldonado's RFC. AR
24-30. The ALJ found Mr. Maldonado had the RFC to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except:
the claimant is able to lift 20 pounds occasionally and lift
and carry 10 pounds frequently; the claimant is able to push
and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; the
claimant is able to walk and stand for six hours per eight
hour workday and sit for six hours per eight hour workday
with normal breaks; the claimant is able to occasionally
climb ramps, stairs, ladders, and scaffolds, but never ropes;
the claimant is able to occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and
crawl; the claimant is able to understand, remember and carry
out simple instructions and make commensurate work related
decisions; the claimant is able to adjust to routine changes
in the work setting; the claimant is able to interact
occasionally with supervisors, co-workers and the public;
and, the claimant is able to maintain concentration,
persistence and pace for two hours at a time during the
workday with normal breaks.
four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Maldonado was able to
perform his past relevant work as a maintenance technician
(as actually performed), and therefore was not disabled. AR
30-31. On March 2, 2016, Mr. Maldonado requested review of
the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR
15. On January 10, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the
request for review. AR 1-7. Mr. Maldonado timely filed his
appeal to this Court on January 27, 2017. Doc.
Mr. Maldonado's Claims
Maldonado raises four arguments for reversing and remanding
this case: (1) the ALJ erred in his assessment of the weight
to be given to the medical opinions of treating physicians
Dr. Ursula Roblero and Dr. Samuel Tri, and physical
consultative examiner Dr. Levi Maes; (2) the ALJ's RFC is
not supported by substantial evidence; (3) the ALJ's step
four finding that he could do his past relevant work is not
supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the ALJ erred by
not proceeding to step five and finding him disabled based on
the Grids. Doc. 22 at 8- 19.
I remand based on the ALJ's failure to properly analyze
the opinion of treating physician Dr. Roblero, I do not
address the other alleged errors, which “may be
affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on
remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297,
1299 (10th Cir. 2003).
Maldonado argues that the ALJ failed to apply the treating
physician rule, and failed to give valid reasons for giving
“little weight” to the opinion of his treating
physician Dr. Ursula Roblero. Doc. 22 at 10-12. The
Commissioner argues that the ALJ gave valid reasons for
giving Dr. Roblero's opinion little weight. Doc. 24 at
7-11. For the reasons discussed below, I find that the ALJ
committed legal ...