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Quintana v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 21, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 13) filed July 5, 2017, in support of Plaintiff Phyllis Quintana's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits. On September 8, 2017, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse and Remand For A Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 18.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on November 1, 2017 (Doc. 20), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on November 21, 2017. (Doc. 21.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is not well taken and is DENIED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Phyllis Quintana (“Ms. Quintana”) alleges that she became disabled on September 1, 2012, at the age of thirty-two because of arthritis in both knees, back problems, depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome (“PTSD”), and anxiety. (Tr. 255, 259.[2]) Ms. Quintana completed the tenth grade in 1995, and has worked as a fast food restaurant assistant manager, retail store cashier, and food store cashier. (Tr. 260, 265-72.) Ms. Quintana reported she stopped working on September 1, 2012, due to her medical conditions. (Tr. 259.)

         On August 13, 2013, Ms. Quintana filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Tr. 230-33.) She also filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 234-39.) Ms. Quintana's applications were initially denied on January 7, 2014, and January 28, 2014. (Tr. 96-110, 111, 112-26, 153-55, 156-59.) They were denied again at reconsideration on July 2, 2014. (Tr. 127, 128-39, 141-52, 166-68, 170-73.) On August 22, 2014, Ms. Quintana requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 174-75.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on November 13, 2015. (Tr. 55-95.) Ms. Quintana appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Michael Armstrong. (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Quintana (Tr. 61-89), and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Cassandra Humphress (Tr. 89-94). On January 8, 2016, ALJ John W. Rolph issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 28-48.) On December 13, 2016, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Ms. Quintana's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-4.) On February 15, 2017, Ms. Quintana timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”[3] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listing described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294, n. 5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01. In making these determinations, the Court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). A decision is based on substantial evidence where it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . 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[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ made his decision that Ms. Quintana was not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. (Tr. 47-48.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that Ms. Quintana met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2013, and that Ms. Quintana had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2012. (Tr. 33.) He found that Ms. Quintana had the following severe impairments: opioid dependence (on Suboxone Replacement Therapy), morbid obesity, bilateral knee impairment with pain, lumbar spine impairment with pain and radiculopathy, right leg pain status-post deep vein thrombosis (DVT), chronic pain syndrome, PTSD, depression NOS/dysthymia, and anxiety disorder (NOS). (Tr. 34.) The ALJ also determined that Ms. Quintana had nonsevere impairments of a history of polysubstance abuse (methamphetamine and marijuana), tobacco abuse, shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue and sleep apnea, heel pain, cellulitis of the face, mild degenerative changes of the hips, allergies and allergic rhinitis, status-post ventral hernia repair/umbilical hernia repair, pruritic dermatitis, cervical pain, dental disease, vaginal bleeding, constipation and hematochezia, benign headache, and hemorrhoids. (Tr. 35-36.) The ALJ, however, determined that Ms. Quintana's impairments did not meet or equal in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. (Tr. 36-38.) As a result, the ALJ proceeded to step four and found that Ms. Quintana had the residual functional capacity

to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), which is that she is able to lift, carry, push, and pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently. However, the claimant can stand and walk a combined total of four hours in an eight-hour day, for 45 to 60 minutes at a time. She can sit for six hours in an eight-hour day, for 60-90 minutes at a time. The claimant can frequently balance, and can occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. Furthermore, she can never crawl. The claimant must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and exposure to irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, chemicals, and poorly ventilated spaces. The claimant should avoid all exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unsecured heights. The claimant is fully capable of learning, remembering, and performing simple, routine and repetitive work tasks, involving simple work instructions, which are performed in a routine, predictable, and low stress work environment. This type of environment (“low stress”) is defined as one in which there is a regular pace, few workplace changes, and no “over the shoulder” supervision. Finally, the claimant can attend and concentrate for two hours at a time with normal breaks.

(Tr. 38.) The ALJ then determined at step five that considering Ms. Quintana's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform. (Tr. 47-48.)

         In support of her Motion, Ms. Quintana argues that (1) the ALJ failed to give adequate reasons for rejecting the opinion of treating provider Silaja Cheruvu, M.D.; and (2) that the ALJ failed to resolve the conflict between the DOT and VE testimony in violation of SSR 00-4p. (Doc. 18 at 14-21.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds there is no reversible error.

         A. Relevant ...

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