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Rooks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 21, 2018

DAVID L. ROOKS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner Of Operations for the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff David L. Rooks' Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed March 7, 2018; Defendant's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 19), filed May 2, 2018; and Plaintiff's Reply to Brief in Response to Motion to Reverse and Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 20), filed May 22, 2018.

         Mr. Rooks applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on June 12, 2013, alleging disability beginning July 20, 2010. (Administrative Record “AR” 244-45). Mr. Rooks' claim was denied initially on October 2, 2013, (AR 109-114), and upon reconsideration on December 27, 2013, (AR 116-24). Mr. Rooks requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), (AR 140-41), which was granted, and a hearing was held on March 3, 2015, before ALJ Dana E. McDonald. (AR 39-80). Mr. Rooks appeared and testified at the hearing along with an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Troy Scott. (AR 39). Mr. Rooks was represented at the hearing by Lina Seikh, an attorney, (id.), and Andrew S. Youngman, a non-attorney representative, filed a pre- hearing memorandum on Mr. Rooks' behalf, (AR 181-89). Mr. Youngman also filed a post-hearing brief on Mr. Rooks' behalf (AR 194-99), prompting a supplemental hearing held on August 6, 2015, (AR 81-108). Mr. Rooks appeared and testified at the supplemental hearing along with a different VE, Luis O. Mas. (AR 81). Mr. Rooks was represented at the supplemental hearing by Rachel Slocombe, an attorney. Id.

         On February 19, 2016, ALJ McDonald issued a decision finding Mr. Rooks not disabled at any time between his alleged onset date and his date last insured. (AR 33). Mr. Rooks requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 13-14), which was denied, (AR 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Through new counsel, Francesca MacDowell, Mr. Rooks has appealed the ALJ's decision, arguing the ALJ erred by failing to follow the correct legal standards or support her decision with substantial evidence. (Doc. 17). The Court has read the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the Administrative Record. Because the ALJ failed to support her decision with substantial evidence, the Court finds Mr. Rooks' Motion is well-taken and should be GRANTED and the case REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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); Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The ALJ's failure to apply the correct legal standards or demonstrate that he has done so is grounds for reversal. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's 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. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record 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 ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of DIB and SSI, a claimant establishes a disability when he 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) (2015), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.905(a), 416.1505(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.920; 416.1520.

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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 either (3) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[1] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.920(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five of the evaluation process, where the Commissioner must show 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. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Mr. Rooks filed for DIB on June 12, 2013, alleging numbness and weakness in his hands, chronic lower back pain, high blood pressure, a bulging disc in his lower back, and chronic knee pain limited his ability to work beginning July 20, 2010. (AR 109-10, 116-17). At step one, the ALJ determined Mr. Rooks had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between his alleged disability onset date through June 30, 2013, the date he was last insured. (AR 26). At step two, the ALJ found Mr. Rooks has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, bilateral knee osteoarthritis, lumbar compression fraction, lumbar spondylosis with myelopathy, facet arthropathy, muscle spasms, neuralgia, radiculitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and morbid obesity. (AR 26). At step three, the ALJ concluded none of Mr. Rooks' impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listed impairment. (AR 27).

         At step four, the ALJ found Mr. Rooks has the RFC to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), in that Mr. Rooks can perform light work as long as he has the opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing at will throughout the workday. (AR 27). Turning to the evidence, the ALJ began by discussing Mr. Rooks' statements. Mr. Rooks testified that he stopped working in July 2010 after he had been fired for missing too much work due to back pain. (AR 28). Mr. Rooks stated that he was involved in an automobile accident in August 2011, which worsened his pain. Id.

         Mr. Rooks testified he could walk for about 25 minutes, sit for about 30 minutes, stand still for about 15 minutes at a time, and lift up to 40 pounds, just not consistently. Id. During his period of disability, Mr. Rooks lived with his girlfriend for a time and was able to care for his own hygiene without assistance. Id. Mr. Rooks stated he could attempt chores but would have to rest, and he spent most of the day ...

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