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Zambrano v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 12, 2018

MICHAEL ZAMBRANO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND REMAND

          KEVIN R. SWEAZEA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Michael Zambrano seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that he is not entitled to supplemental security income benefits (SSI). With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered Mr. Zambrano's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum, filed October 23, 2017 (Doc. 17), the Commissioner's response in opposition, filed November 17, 2017 (Doc. 19), and Mr. Zambrano's reply, filed December 13, 2017 (Doc. 20), along with the remainder of the record. Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Mr. Zambrano's motion is well taken in part and not well taken in part and should be granted in part and denied in part.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On May 30, 2013, Mr. Zambrano protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging that he had been disabled since May 30, 2013, due to anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder and degenerative disk disease and hepatitis C. (AR 262). On October 1, 2013, the agency determined that Mr. Zambrano was not disabled and denied his claim. (AR 99-113). This determination was affirmed on January 8, 2014 (AR 114-129), and a subsequent hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), held on January 25, 2016, again ended in a denial. (AR 53-69). The ALJ's decision became final when, on March 21, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Zambrano's request for review. (AR 6-10). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Council denies a request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision); 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5).

         STANDARD

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court must examine the record as a whole, “including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. “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.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Mr. Zambrano's claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         DISABILITY FRAMEWORK

         “Disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, is the inability “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Act further adds that for the purposes of § 423(d)(1)(A):

an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

§ 423(d)(2)(A).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show he: (1) is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) 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) has impairment(s) that either meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) is unable to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) (i-iv) & 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If the claimant cannot show a Listings-level impairment, but proves he is unable to perform “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. Steps four and five are based on an assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) which gauges “what the claimant is still functionally capable of doing on a regular and continuing basis, despite his impairments.” Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).

         THE ALJ'S DETERMINATION

         As detailed in her written decision, the ALJ engaged in the sequential analysis set forth above, first finding that Mr. Zambrano had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of May 30, 2013. (AR 58). At step two, the ALJ identified the following severe, medically determinable impairments from which Mr. Zambrano suffers: mild scoliosis and minimal degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine; post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); anti-social personality disorder; major depressive disorder; and a history of polysubstance abuse.[1] (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Mr. Zambrano's impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (AR 59). As a result, at step four, the ALJ assessed Mr. Zambrano's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (AR 60-63). The ALJ found:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defmed (sic) in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, can occasionally stoop and crouch, and must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold. He is further limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions, and is able to maintain attention and concentration to perform simple tasks for two hours at a time without requiring redirection to task. He can have no public contact, and interactions with co- workers and supervisors should ...

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