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McAuliffe v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 24, 2018

MARK A. MCAULIFFE, JR.,, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,, Defendant.



THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 16) filed November 14, 2017, in support of Plaintiff Mark McAuliffe'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 XVI supplemental security income benefits. On March 16, 2018, Plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 23.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on May 10, 2018 (Doc. 24), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on May 30, 2018. (Doc. 25.) 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 well taken and is GRANTED.[2]

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Mark Mcauliffe (“Mr. Mcauliffe”) alleges that he became disabled on November 10, 2008, at the age of twenty-five because of a fractured disc in his lower back, numbness and tingling in left leg, learning disability, mental issues, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia. (Tr. 194, 725.[3]) Mr. Mcauliffe completed the ninth grade in 1997, and worked as a fast food restaurant cook, residential construction framer, swimming pool construction laborer, landscaping company laborer, and tile supply store delivery person. (Tr. 195, 726, 733-40.) Mr. Mcauliffe reported he stopped working on August 31, 2008, due to his medical conditions.[4] (Tr. 725.)

         On December 18, 2008, Mr. Mcauliffe protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 161-69.) Mr. McAuliffe's application was denied initially and at reconsideration. (Tr. 62, 63, 64-66, 72-75.) On June 28, 2010, Mr. Mcauliffe requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 76-78.) ALJ Michelle E. Lindsay conducted a hearing on May 24, 2012. (Tr. 24-61.) On August 3, 2012, ALJ Lindsay issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 9-19.) On November 7, 2013, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Mr. McAuliffe's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-6.) On January 8, 2014, Mr. Mcauliffe timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (USDC NM Civ. No. 14-25 SMV, Doc. 1.) In the meantime, however, on December 4, 2013, Mr. Mcauliffe filed a second application for SSI. (Tr. 695-702.) On June 11, 2014, Mr. Mcauliffe's second application was initially denied. (Tr. 557-67, 568, 603-06.) On January 2, 2015, it was denied at reconsideration. (Tr. 569, 570-61, 611-14.) On April 6, 2015, Magistrate Judge Stephan M. Vidmar remanded Mr. Mcauliffe's case for further proceedings as to his first application.[5] (Id. at Doc. 22.) On May 7, 2015, the Appeals Council entered an Order Remanding Case to Administrative Law Judge. (Tr. 598.) Therein, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ as follows:

The claimant filed [a] subsequent claim for Title XVI benefits on November 19, 2013. The Appeals Council's action with respect to the current claim renders the subsequent claim duplicate. Therefore, the Administrative Law Judge will consolidate the claim files, create a single electronic record and issue a new decision on the consolidated claims (20 CFR 416.1452, HALLEX I-1-10-10). In compliance with the above, the Administrative Law Judge will offer the claimant the opportunity for a hearing, take any further action needed to complete the administrative record, will associate the claim files and issue a new decision on the associated claims.

(Tr. 598.) ALJ Lillian Richter held a second administrative hearing via videoconference on May 4, 2017. (Tr. 495-531.) Mr. Mcauliffe appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Mark Hendricks.[6] (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Mr. Mcauliffe (Tr. 502-26), and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Sandra Trost (Tr. 526-31). On May 31, 2017, ALJ Lindsay issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 473-86.) Because this case had already been remanded following judicial review, Mr. Mcauliffe timely filed the instant action, rather than requesting review by the Appeals Council, as permitted by 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(d). (Doc. 1.)

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (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.”[7] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled regardless of his 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, he 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 his “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 [his 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 his 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 Mr. Mcauliffe was not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. (Tr. 484-86.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Mcauliffe had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 18, 2008, the date of his application. (Tr. 478.) She found that Mr. Mcauliffe had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, lumbar spondylolysis, mild degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine, radiculopathy of the lumbar region, dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intermittent explosive disorder, and chronic pain syndrome. (Id.) The ALJ also found that Mr. Mcauliffe had nonsevere impairments of hypertension, asthma, and cannabis dependence. (Id.) The ALJ, however, determined that Mr. Mcauliffe's impairments did not meet or equal in severity one the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. (Tr. 479-80.) As a result, the ALJ proceeded to step four and found that Mr. Mcauliffe had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b). The ALJ added that

[s]pecifically, the claimant can lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, can stand/walk for 6 hours and sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour day. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can never balance; can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; should avoid exposure to vibration; is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work; is limited to ...

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