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Hodges v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 24, 2018

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



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Valerie Kay Hodges' Brief in Support of Motion to Remand or Reverse, filed December 18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18, 20');">2017. [Doc. 18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18]. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the undersigned to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, including the entry of final judgment. [Docs. 10, 11, 12]. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), the Court denies Ms. Hodges' Motion for the reasons set forth below.


         This Court's institutional role is to ensure that an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision on the merits of a Social Security appeal is supported by substantial evidence and that the correct legal standards have been applied. Ms. Hodges contends that neither standard was met by the ALJ in her case. In support, she points to the ALJ's alleged failure to consider her migraines when determining her residual functional capacity. She also posits that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinions in the file and assess her credibility. Thus, she asks the Court to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision. However, for the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Ms. Hodges has failed to demonstrate reversible error, and so affirms the ALJ's denial of disability insurance benefits in this case.


         Ms. Hodges filed an application with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on June 28, 20');">2013. AR at 158-59. She alleged a disability onset date of February 15, 20');">2010 due to “epilepsy, panic disorder with agoraphobia, anxiety, depression, and vertigo.” AR at 175. The Administration denied Ms. Hodges' claim initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR at 68-109.

         ALJ Janice L. Holmes held an evidentiary hearing on October 22, 20');">2015. AR at 28-67. At the hearing, Ms. Hodges amended her alleged onset date to August 21, 20');">2012. AR at 31, 171. On March 2, 20');">2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Ms. Hodges has not been under a disability from her alleged onset date through the date of her decision. AR at 8-27. In response, Ms. Hodges filed a “Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order” on May 5, 20');">2016. AR at 7. After reviewing her case, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Hodges' request for review on March 6, 20');">2017. AR at 1-6. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 20');">2003). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20');">20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that 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');">20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20');">20 C.F.R. § 404.1520');">20(a)(4).[1]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Hodges has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. AR at 13. At Step Two, she determined that Ms. Hodges has the severe impairments of “Non-epileptic Seizure Disorder; Migraines; Degenerative Disc Disease of the Cervical Spine; Major Depressive Disorder; and Panic Disorder[.]” AR at 13. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hodges' impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 14-15. Ms. Hodges does not challenge these findings on appeal.

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20');">20 C.F.R. § 404.1520');">20(e). RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities a plaintiff retains in spite of her medical impairments. 20');">20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 37418');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">18');">184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hodges retains the RFC to:

perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20');">20 CFR 404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand and/or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday. However, the claimant is further limited to no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds, no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts, no operation of motor vehicles, and frequent overhead reaching. Moreover, the claimant is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions and routine tasks, a low stress environment, which I define as no production rate pace (e.g. no assembly line work), simple work related decisions, no interactions with the general public, and occasional interaction with co-workers.

AR at 16.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hodges is unable to perform her past relevant work as a paralegal, claims clerk, or administrative assistant. AR at 20');">20, 64. However, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Hodges can perform despite her limitations. AR at 21. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hodges retains the functional capacity to work as a cleaner, classifier, or garment sorter. AR at 21-22.

         Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hodges is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, and denied benefits. AR at 22.

         III) ...

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