United States District Court, D. New Mexico
DAVID L. ROOKS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner Of Operations for the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
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.
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.
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
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.
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); 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.
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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
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.
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” 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.
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).
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.
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 ...