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Maldonado v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 20, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[1] 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. 2007).

         “Substantial 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To 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).

         When 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[2] 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.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Mr. Maldonado was born in 1955, completed a GED, and spent 35 years in prison. AR 47, 60, 196.[3] 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.[4]

         At step 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[5] 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.

AR 24-25.

         At step 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. 1.[6]

         IV. Mr. Maldonado's Claims

         Mr. 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.

         Because 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).

         V. Analysis

         Mr. 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 ...

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