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Diaz Jaramillo v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 27, 2018

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



         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. 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 Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (Doc. 19), filed February 9, 2018; the Commissioner's response in opposition (Doc. 21), filed March 15, 2018; and Plaintiff's reply (Doc. 23), filed March 26, 2018. Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is granted in part as detailed below.


         On June 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, alleging that she had been disabled since September 1, 2013, due to high blood pressure; obstructive sleep apnea; gastroesophageal reflux; congestive heart failure; “mitro valve and tricuspid valve”; degenerative disk disease; lumbago; gallstones; osteopenia; vertigo; fibromyalgia; osteoarthritis; depression; and anxiety. (AR 139-140). After receiving denials at both the initial and reconsideration levels of review, Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael Leppala.

         In the written decision that followed, ALJ Leppala summarized the evidence of record and assigned weight to medical opinions provided by, inter alia, Plaintiffs treating physicians, Patricia McElrath, M.D. and Paul Wilson, M.D., and examining state agency physicians, Ross Clark, M.D. and Deborah Kos, PsyD. He then employed the required five-step disability analysis, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of September 1, 2013.[2] (AR 70). At step two, ALJ Leppala found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; hip bursitis; osteopenia; hypertension; and obesity. (Id.). Here, the ALJ also noted that Plaintiff has the non-severe mental impairments of Anxiety and Affective Disorder. (AR 71). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff s impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (AR 72).

         ALJ Leppala next assessed Plaintiffs Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), finding that Plaintiff has the RFC[3] to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the Claimant is capable of occasionally lifting and/or carrying twenty pounds; frequently lifting and/or carrying ten pounds; standing and/or walking for about six hours in an eight- hour workday, and sitting for about six hours in an eight-hour workday, all with normal breaks. The Claimant is capable of occasionally climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.

(AR 74).

         With this assessment at hand, ALJ Leppala determined, at step four, that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as an office manager, scheduler, and printer and, therefore, was not disabled. (AR 80). The ALJ's decision became final when, on June 30, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1). 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). See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5).

         Plaintiff now asks the Court to reverse and remand, arguing that the ALJ (1) improperly assessed the medical opinions provided by agency examining consultants Ross Clark, M.D. and Deborah Kos, Psy.D; (2) improperly rejected the medical opinion of her treating psychologist, Dr. Paul Wilson; and (3) improperly determined that she is capable of performing past relevant work.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. 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). See also 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. at 162. “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) (quotation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Plaintiff'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).

         Having meticulously combed the record, the Court finds that the ALJ erred in his consideration and weighing of the medical evidence provided by Plaintiff's treating provider, Dr. Wilson, and agency examining consultant, Dr. Kos. In the absence of a proper evidence evaluation, the Court is unable to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Consequently, the Court will reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand for further proceedings. The Court will only reach Plaintiff's specific evidentiary contentions to the extent relevant, and it will not reach Plaintiff's ...

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